South Korea has been well known for its innovative music culture since the late 20th century. Although South Korea has many things to be proud of, the world only discovered its music culture in the early 2000s. However, as an ordinary K-pop fan, you might not know about the Korean music history, and might have never heard of Korean songs before.
This article will briefly introduce the most popular Korean songs from 1980s to 1990s, so that you can understand why South Korea is considered a music superpower nowadays.
The Transition Period
During the 1980s, the Korean music industry was in a transition period. The music industry was rapidly changing as a result of the government’s economic development plan. Therefore, the Korean music industry was not stable and was facing an uncertain future.
This transition period lasted from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. The Korean music industry was in a developmental stage, and it entered a growth phase in the mid-1990s. At that time, the music industry was unstable and was facing an uncertain future.
In the 1980s, Korean popular music was dominated by ballads. The songs were characterized by a gentle and sorrowful melody, and were accompanied by beautiful melodies of the piano. Ballads were originally composed of traditional Korean melodies and lyrics that told stories about nature or life’s hardships. The lyrics were usually about love, both love between a man and a woman and love between people and their country.
Korean music in the 1980s was also characterized by the emergence of genres such as dance and electronic. This was due to the increase in the demand for music by younger generations. In addition, there was a decrease in ballad singers and a growth in electronic and dance musicians.
Dance music was another popular genre at that time. Unlike ballads which usually told stories about love or nature, dance songs were composed with easy melodies that had lyrics that did not tell stories but described an emotion or mood.
The third major genre during this period was electronic music, which originated from disco but evolved into a new genre with different characteristics from disco. Electronic music consisted of elements such as synthesizers or other machines that produce sounds like those in sci-fi movies or cartoons.
Unlike ballads or dance songs which are performed by individuals, electronic songs are performed by multiple people including synthesizer players, singers and rappers simultaneously at live concerts. Popular electronic musicians include Cho Yong-pil (조용필), Kim Min-suk (김민석) and Lee Soo-young (이수영).
Cho Yong-Pil was the first singer to sell over 1 million records in Korea, and his biggest hit was “Let’s Go on a Trip” which sold over two million copies. It was the summer song of 1986. Cho Yong-Pil was the first Korean singer to have a concert in the US, and he performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
He was the first to break into the Japanese market, and his album sold over a half million copies. His album sold over 1.5 million copies in Japan, a rare feat for any foreign artist. He also performed in France and held concerts at La Scala in Milan, Italy.
Cho Yong-Pil became a worldwide star through his hit songs “Let’s Go on a Trip” and “I Love You”. His songs have been covered by many singers in Korea and Japanese artists, and his music was used in movies.
At the time, Cho Yong-Pil was an iconic figure in Korea, and he was a top star. Later, when South Korea achieved economic growth, Korean people watched Korea’s history through Cho Yong-Pil’s eyes.
Cho Yong-Pil and his songs are now becoming younger again. Young Korean people who grew up listening to Cho Yong-Pil’s music are hitting their 30’s and 40’s, and they are now the main customers of his concerts and albums.
Lee Sun-hee (born 1964) is a South Korean singer and songwriter. Lee is often referred to by Koreans as the “National Diva” of Korea for her popularity amongst South Koreans, who admired her for her success and vocal abilities as a singer. She made her first debut in 1984 with the song title “To J”, for which she won first prize at the ninth MBC Riverside Song Festival in 1988.
She released her first album, Ah! The good old days, the following year after her first album release, in 1985. She continued releasing a series of successful albums in the 1980s and early 1990s, for which, she won the Bonsang award (the main award) at the Golden Disc Awards each year from 1985 to 1990.
In recent history, The South Korean government awarded Lee the Prime Minister’s prestigious praise in 2010 for her contribution to Korean popular culture. In 2011, Lee became the fourth South Korean singer to perform at Carnegie Hall, joining Cho Yong-Pil on the list of Korean singers who were given the prestigious opportunity.
She was one of the selected few South Korean singers to perform in North Korea as part of the Spring is Coming concert in Pyongyang organised in 2018.
Kim Wan-sun is an iconic figure in Korean pop music history, famous for her unique style and charismatic stage presence. She was a key figure in the second wave of Hallyu in the mid-1990s.
She was also known as the “Korean Madonna” for her explicit dancing and performance on stage and was sometimes also referred to as a “Dancing Queen” during the Korean music renaissance era.
Kim Wan-sun was born in 1969 and from a young age, trained to become a singer since her years in High School. Her aunt, Han Baek-hee, who was a renowned manager for popular singers in South Korea such as Insooni, had mentored and guided Kim during her young training years. After three gruelling years of training under her aunt, Kim dropped out of High School and focused on her career as a singer.
Her passion and hard work paid off when she released her first song title and album with the same name, “Tonight” in 1986. She started gaining traction and fans towards stardom status by the 1990s, when she released her fifth album, “Pierrot Smiles at Us”, which sold 1 million album copies.