I am sitting in the basement of a bar with no name. The sign outside says All Kind of Old Music, but after living in Seoul for three months this grammatical error does not faze me. I am saddled up at the bar, staring at a wall covered by seemingly endless shelves of vinyl records. I try to count the number of records in one shelf, but my vision in a little hazy and the cases are worn and damaged by love, so they sort of blend together. “How many records?” I ask. I have learned to drop the superfluous parts of my speech in this bar. Mr. Kim takes a long drag of his cigarette and thinks for a moment, no doubt searching his mind for the correct number in English, not for the information itself. “Five thousand,” he says, gesturing to the collection. “This is my history. This is my life.”
I know what he means. Music has shaped every stage of my life for better or worse. It is no accident that as the quality of my life improves, so does my music collection.
During these years abroad my relationship with music has evolved in two ostensibly opposing ways. First, I have been exposed to more pop music than I ever imagined possible. In Bulgaria American top 40 hits were blaring out of every TV screen I encountered. Whether it be a café full of teenagers or a restaurant full of pensioners, everyone was subjected to equal amounts of Akon. Even worse than this was Bulgarian pop music itself, known as Chalga. This “music,” which is essentially just a Serbian beat layered with the wailing and strained vocals of some amateur porn star, was looked down upon even by Bulgarians, a people who still consider Scorpion cutting edge. And yet, I couldn’t escape it. Those were my two choices for background noise at every event I attended outside of my apartment for 27 months. That does something to a person. I’m not sure what, but I’m nervous to find out.
Here in Korea pop music also reigns, but while most teenagers are vaguely aware of American pop stars, they are much more interested in their own idols, the Gods and Goddesses of Korean Pop, or K-Pop. K-Pop stars are not unlike the American pop stars of the 90’s. They consist mostly of attractive girl groups and boy bands dancing in unison and singing repetitive simple songs that teenagers find relatable. The difference, perhaps, is more in the cultural subtleties. I was talking to a friend who has lived here for over a year and he told me that at the heart of every K-Pop song is a good girl who wants to be bad. I could offer up volumes about what I think that means, but I’ve written enough about culture for the time being.
This is all to say that at one end of the extreme for the past two and half years I have been oppressed by music and subjected to songs that have been, like life, nasty, brutish, and short. At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, the digital era and my copious amounts of free time have combined to provide me with the musical education I always dreamed of. I have spent countless hours on various music sites finding new artists and researching older tracks, and even more time stuck on trains listening to deep cuts. I have learned to talk about music, to identify what I like and don’t like about songs, groups, and genres. I have also met amazingly diverse people who have made me appreciate the value in such far reaching genres as Metal, Trance, and even Tuvan Throat Singing. And now I have Mr. Kim.
“Do you know the name of this bar?” Mr. Kim asks. I flash him a cautious smile, “All Kind of Old Music?” I answer. He erupts in laughter. “You think this is name of bar?! That is just the sign! The name is Two Wagon Wheel!” he says, pointing to the two wheels affixed to the opposite wall inside the bar. ‘Obviously.’ I think. Mr. Kim and his friends are still cracking up about my ridiculous assumption when he says in his charming stacatto way, “Okay. Jane. I have song for you.” After unsuccessfully attempting to pronounce my name several times Mr. Kim and I have settled on calling me Jane. I am still trying to make out the titles on the sides of the records when a familiar beat sweeps over the bar. I look at Mr. Kim and wide smiles break out across both our faces. Lou Reeds unmistakeable voice is singing "Sweet Jane" in the background as I lean over to Mr. Kim and say, "So, tell me more about your history."