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Retro Fever Hits KoreaIs it a sign of people’s dissatisfaction on present society?


  ▲ /Extracted from MBC  

  On the afternoon of Saturday January 3rd, MBC’s reality TV show “Infinite Challenge” aired a special episode called “Saturday, Saturday is a Singer.” It, in fact, reached a 35.9 percent view rate at its peak moment, reigniting the excitement for the 1990s hit songs and singers. The songs were played throughout cafes, bars, clubs, and all around the country, proving the retro fever in Korea. Retro fever is prevalent not only in the music industry but also in film and fashion industries. It seems like nostalgia for the 1980s and 1990s has hit Korea.

  After the show “Saturday, Saturday is a Singer,” a video was uploaded on Facebook. In the video, people could not take their eyes off the television even when they were taking care of their children and doing their laundry. In other words, the show has brought so much joy and fun to Korea. In fact, the songs from the show, such as Kim Gun-mo’s 1995 hit “Mis-Encounter,” Uhm Jung-hwa’s “Poison” (1998) and Jinusean’s “Tell Me” (1997), ranked in top ten of the real-time music chart of Naver. Also, singers from the show are now actively engaging in various TV shows and returning to their singing careers. Kim Jung-nam from Turbo and Lee Jae-hun from Cool are appearing on variety shows, while Jinusean, Turbo, and Kim Hyun-jung are currently preparing for their comeback albums. Such fever has not only occurred among thirties and forties who were their youth in 1980s and 1990s, but also inflamed the interests in 1990s music among the young people now. This has allowed people from different generations to interact more easily. Ko Jae-yoon, a sophomore majoring in Mass Communication and Journalism in Dongguk University said, “I had fun listening to my dad while watching the show as he talked about the singers he knew like Kim Gun-mo on the stage.”

  This retro fever began spreading throughout the country by the 2012 tvN drama “Reply 1997” and 2013’s “Reply 1994.” These two dramas were so popular that the former impacted cable dramas by reaching a 7.6 percent view rate and the latter followed its fame with a 14.3 percent, breaking the highest record. Such ratings are uncommon in cable shows. From the “Reply” series to “Saturday, Saturday is a Singer”, shows with retro content are loved by the public and are now constantly regenerated by mass media in present-day Korea.

  It seems like the retro fever has also occurred in the film industry in Korea. Starting from “Sunny (2011)” illustrating high school life in 80s to “Architecture 101 (2012)” making the main actress Bae Suzy as the icon of first love, retro is becoming one of the leading themes of films in Korea. The former recorded eight million viewers, while the latter had four million viewers. Especially regarding “Architecture 101” which focused on its visual effects and the 1990s’ items, such as pager, personal stereo, and CD players, and its songs from 1990s, played a significant role in its success. Recently, “C’est Si Bon” illustrating the 1970s and1980s was released.

  Retro content has similarly affected the fashion in Korea. Professor Jeong Youn-gil from Department of Dharma College and who teaches the study of pop culture in Dongguk University said, “It is now very common to see the items worn by celebrities and get sold out in on-line and off-line markets. Like this, media have the ability to concentrate and maintain the general public’s attention on particular contents. Fashion trends of Retro style occurred in such correlations.” In fact, duffle coats, turtleneck sweaters, pleated skirts, and beret are trending. Such fashion trended in the 1990s, and this implies that even the fashion industry is mesmerized by the retro styles.

Why people are excited for retro?

  The reason for the success of 1990s’ hit songs is because people are fed up with recent monotonous songs. Starting from 2000, idols took over the majority of music industry and created similar music. This eventually made people tired of listening to them. In contrast, 90s music had unique performances with catchy melodies and rhetoric lyrics, and as a result, they were more intriguing. Park Jong-tak, a sophomore majoring in Mass Communication and Journalism in Dongguk University, said, “Songs these days are too repetitive to make it more addictive, but the songs in 1990s consist of stories and emotions.”

  The interesting aspect of this retro fever in Korea is that the retro contents are loved by the teens and twenty-something who are rather far from understanding retro. In the case of “Reply” series, Professor Jeong said, “The retro contents bring analogical senses which people in present generation have never felt before, and the people eventually empathize such senses since they are also universal. The contents consoled the young generations by conveying the message that people in the previous generations also underwent similar things, they thought as their sole experiences, in slightly different ways.”

  On top of that, it was much easier for present-day teens and twenty-something to accept and embrace any kind of cultures. This is because they have been living in a digitalized world, and they are very open-minded to differences. Professor Jeong said that leading people among thirties and forties now were called as “N generation” and clearly had different sense of values compared to other previous generations. They continuously recreated their contents in the present on spaces like SNS’s. Such aspect allowed today’s young people to easily accept and understand retro contents.”

  An increase in the age of consumers also greatly affected the film industry in particular. In the past, most consumers of the film industry were tens and twenties. However, as older people began to actively participate in leisure activities, film industries are also creating more and more content that can attract more consumers.

  Last but not least, people have encountered stagnation in various aspects of life in Korea, and they want to relieve their harsh reality by reminiscing about the past. In the 1990s, young people called themselves “X generation” and “Orange tribe”, which represented the consumption culture of youth at that time. Economic affluence allowed them to adventurously, bravely, and creatively put their ideas into actions. It was when digital communication era began that the film industry expanded, and music genres diversified. For example, rap songs became popular by singer Seo Tae-ji and the fan club culture began. In these ways, the 1990s were an era in which Korea prospered in all aspects, including economic, social, and cultural. In contrast, these days, people are having a hard time dealing with the decrease in salaries, unemployment, charter shortage, and the crisis in private businesses. It is very difficult to even work until the age of 50, and there is only an increase in the number of temporary employees. Sadly, such burdens which are common in the present days are causing young people to even avoid being in a relationship with the ones they love simply because they do not have time or money to afford. Considering all these hardships people face in Korea, finding happiness in the past is natural or even wise.

  Professor Jeong asserted that individuals tend to reminisce about the past in order to overcome the frustrations caused by the insecure present and unpromising future. He added that, personally, the present retro fever phenomenon has the characteristic of cultural regression. Thirties and forties, leading the retro phenomenon, no longer have the power to construct promising future or even to resist the world made by the previous generations. Such frustrations and breakdowns caused them to be absorbed in the entertaining atmosphere created by retro contents and to recollect their “once-blossomed” past.

  He then maintained that the contents consist only of the past they want to remember, not the past itself. Since people need romance and pleasure today rather than pain and discomfort, the majority of the retro contents convey only the joyful sides of the past instead of the dark ones. He then said that such partial memorizations, combined with the de-politicizing characteristics of today’s people, enforce more and more people to seek retro contents. He added, “The fact that such manufactured past is concentrated on illustrating certain aspects—especially commercially valuable—instead of properly reflecting it, implies that even today’s young people, enthusiastic about retro contents, are exposed to cultural conservatism rather than having cultural, productive change or stimulus.”  

  Koreans are now in love with retro cultures. The fact that such cultures prevail in mass media, film, fashion, and music where young people dominate may tell us that this can help decreasing the gap between generations. However, we should never undermine what have caused this phenomenon. People tend to reminisce about their pasts when they cannot be satisfied with their present circumstances. Then, does that mean that this retro fever clearly shows the harsh reality of Korea where even the young people who should run for the future look back and romanticize the past to ease themselves? Hopefully this nostalgia, instead of merely being an escape, can also provide the inspiration that can help overcome the current state of disillusion that many young people are trapped in.

Yim Se-youn  seyoun8120@dongguk.edu

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