Monday, 8 December 2008

Classical Music and bad guys

What the?....
Hmm...I can already imagine perplexed faces and minds at the look of this title. What on earth can we say about the subject that might be interesting at all?
Well, if you happen to think like this then I am sorry to say that you would just be plain wrong. And if you want to know what it is that can be of any interest, I'm also afraid you'll have to read this post. What a shame indeed...

Right. So, what's the story?

During my many years in Korea (I'm here since the fall of 2002, which is less than some but more than most) I could watch several "dramas" - these very popular Korean soaps about which I'll need to write something some day - and, at some point, I realized something quite amazing (to me, at least):

Most of the time, characters who like classical music are the bad guys.

No kidding.
Now, when I say "bad guys", it doesn't actually mean gangster, thief or serial killer. "Bad guy" here means someone who's just mean, pretentious, arrogant, totally unscrupulous, greedy, who's never heard the words "fair play", who's condescending and, last but not (I might have forgotten a few.)

I know, it sounds unfair for classical music fans, but if they don't watch these soaps they will be OK.

It actually took me a while to realize this. But, time and time again, after seeing that the son of a b.... who had just plotted to make sure his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend and all his extended family would burn in hell (or remain poor, ill and depressed) for the next 25 generations in order for him to be sure he would not feel threatened in any way, constantly listened to CLASSICAL MUSIC, I realized how evil Mozart and his whole work actually were.
It is certain that if I would go on watching these dramas a consequent number of years, I might end up thinking like this(that's scary).

For sure, I'm slightly exaggerating here, but only when it comes to the scale of it, not the basic tenet of this post.

So what's so evil about Mozart, Beethoven and Co?

You're sure you really want to know the answer?
All right. I'll tell you, but don't tell anybody.

When these dramas associate bad guys and classical music, they criticize their very own society, upper class and fantasies you can find anywhere, and all the time, in the Korean society about "the West".

To understand how I see this mechanism operating, I have to go through some more explanation.

After the Korean War ended (1950-1953), Korea was a ravaged country and the process to rebuild South Korea was carried out with the assistance of the US (the ideological background means that the US help to Korea should never be understood as just benevolent. It never was only that and never will be. Korea's location (the Korean peninsula) is too important geostrategically speaking (land border with China and Russia, Japan being a very close neighbour) to let it in the hands of the communist ennemy. At least that's basically what the American approach has been. Helping Korea was important to the US policy of containment - Let me also add that it's the same when it comes to any diplomatic relationship. No country offers anything for free to any other country. There's always something in return, even if it is "just" political influence behind the scene. So this comment can be extended to any other country "helping" another one.)

This means that in Korea, for many years and still nowadays, "the West" has been synomymous with "America", because of the overwhelming US presence and influence in this country, and that Korea's model has been, and still is, the US, in all aspects. Whether it about economy, education, movies, politics, etc. anything and everything is more or less copied on, or inspired from, the US, and that includes classical music.

Granted, as we all know classical music is not American in the first place, but European. But since, for most Koreans, everything Western comes, directly or indirectly, from the US, it might be fair to say that for most of them it does not make much of a difference.
At the same time, classical music does have an elite image. It's not like Pop or Rock music, that are associated with people in the streets, noise, spontaneity and raw energy. Classical music has its public, that is usually cleaner, more quiet and, more often than not, older and richer.

Of course, you will always find young people in love with classical music, there's nothing wrong with that, but, on the whole, its public is more like the one described above than the kind you find at Woodstock-like events.

In any case, since the US (aka. the West) is the role model for all of Korea, upper class koreans send their kids to international schools and to the best US universities, they place emphasis on speaking fluent (American) English, and on knowing American culture and, subsequently, are keen to like, or to show they like(quite different), elitist American culture, which, for historical reasons, includes European bits and pieces, such as classical music.

Since the image of classical music is linked to some sort of elitism, which is the case in Korea, it also means it can have quite a negative image among regular Koreans and that people liking it can be viewed as pretentious snobs, through association.

But in more general terms, it's also possible to say that showing a taste for things Western is very often associated with pretension. Let's say just like when English speakers use a lot of French expressions when speaking, or when French people mix too many English. It has a similar effect. N'est-ce pas?

A typical example of that in one Korean drama/soap would be a scene taking place in an expensive French restaurant (with a French sommelier speaking English with a very strong accent) with a background of classical music and Royal-like curtains around.

Of course, being pretentious might not be the ultimate sin, but it is very close in Korea, where everyone should behave himself/herself modestly, whatever the circumstances. So a rich person who does not, will be perceived very negatively.

I should add that there's also another very important factor that comes into play here, and it is the nationalist and "groupist" bit.

Since classical music comes from the West, it is, by essence, not Korean, and someone who happens to prefer things foreign to Korean ones somehow commits an horrible crime. It can sometimes be felt like some kind of treason towards the group. (just have a look at the (extremely low) percentage of foreign cars in Korea.)

Koreans operate first as members of a group, the individual only comes second. They define themselves as members of several groups that go from the smallest to the widest possible, like for example, russian dolls.

I can illustrate this in the following way :
First group : parents and family
Second: school year
Third: Village/City
Fourth: Region
Fifth: Company
Sixth: Country

Sometimes, you can read that it's the opposite order, ie. from country to family, but family is definitely the starting point.
This succession of groups should not be understood as fixed or without mistakes. I obviously cannot list all the potential groups you can find in Korea (and there are a lot!) In addition, geographical (eg. village) and temporal (eg. school) groups are of course not incompatible, someone is always a member of several groups at the same time.

This preference given to groups is often a big problem. One form it takes is regionalism. It can manifest itself in amazing ways, like in elections for example, when a candidate can garner more than 90% (really) of the votes from his hometown/region.

Anyway, it seems I'm starting to stray too much from the subject now, but, since everything is related, I think this addition was necessary.

In conclusion? Well, is there one? Well, next time you see a Korean soap, pay attention to see whether I've been talking nonsense here. That will be my reward, and yours.

Writing this, I also thought about the image of classical music in soaps/movies in the West.
I remember watching Smallville (the young Superman series) and the great bad guys, ie. Lex Luthor and his father Lionel, were also listening to classical music (not the other ones, and good, characters).
I also have the image, don't know from which movie, of a killer listening to classical music (well Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange" seems to fit)...looks like classical music and psychopaths are a good fit in popular Western imagery...

Don't know where that comes from...maybe from the image of Wagner associated with Nazi Germany?? I wonder...any thoughts welcome!

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