Three questions for Mike Powell

A music writer offers a glimpse at the Orwellian world of North Korean pop music -- complete with song samples.

Published May 18, 2007 5:29PM (EDT)

How does pop music exist in a country where the public has no say in what's popular? Stylus magazine writer and editor Mike Powell tried to answer that and other related questions in an incredibly fascinating and thoroughly researched paper on the official popular music of North Korea, which he delivered at April's EMP (Experience Music Project) conference. Titled "The Pyongyang Hit Parade," Powell's work offers a fascinating look into the Orwellian world of North Korean popular culture. Using information gleaned from interviews with people who had visited the country as well as from scouring the Internet for North Korean music videos, downloads and CDs (which can be ordered from the official state Web site), Powell pieced together a grim portrait of a world where pop music functions only as propaganda, Western music is illegal and, so far as he or anyone else can tell, there are no signs of cultural dissent.

Before going any further, curious listeners might want to check out "Arirang" and "Reunification Rainbow," both by the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble -- one of the tiny handful of state-sanctioned pop bands, all of which are credited as being formed by Kim Jong Il. "It's really chipper, beautifully utopian stuff," says the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Powell about the music, "which is an incredibly sad irony."

What's your sense of the role pop music plays in North Korean society?

It's mass culture in the way that all Communist culture is mass culture. There's an official North Korean broadcasting system that plays the songs every night, and some of the music gets piped into the subways and other public areas. Then there are songs that have specific purposes: for gymnastics exhibitions or as music for the elderly. There's definitely a very strong functional aspect to all this music.

Were you able to determine how North Koreans actually feel about the music?

One of the reasons I approached this topic is because I've been thinking a lot about what it means to appreciate music. If North Koreans have only one kind of music available to them, is their appreciation of it a moot point? Is it perverse to talk about people's enjoyment of something when they have no other choices? There is information that suggests that because of the fact that Western music is illegal there, most North Koreans don't even know that other music exists. But this is a multilayered thing. A lot of North Korean pop music has these rock and pop, Western-style elements that, musicologically speaking, I can only reason came from Russian pop or Japanese pop -- sort of secondhand stuff.

I did speak to people who suggested that the privileged youth and the higher-ups have some access to Western pop music -- there was an article about a year ago reporting that Kim Jong Il's son was spotted at an Eric Clapton concert [in Germany] -- but other people I've talked to who have been to North Korea said absolutely not, there's no indication that the public has ever heard Elvis or the Beatles.

As far as you can tell, is there any musical dissent in North Korea?

As far as I can tell, no. I wasn't going into my paper thinking that I wanted to find the Pyongyang underground -- the beautiful façade of this place was very important to me -- but I got no sense at all that dissent was occurring musically. But we now know that secret rock concerts took place in Russia during the Soviet era. We now know about the "swing kids" in Nazi Germany. It's one of those things where history may prove us wrong.

I don't want to posit a definite answer, but a lack of dissent may just be a question of resources. If people don't know Western music, if they have limited access to musical equipment and probably much more limited access to recording equipment, the apparent lack of a musical underground in North Korea is probably as much economic as it is cultural. And it's really important to remember that it's hard to have musical dissent in a place where the people don't have enough food to eat.

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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