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Move over K-pop: Korean youth turn to old-time trot music

Young pop stars in South Korea, struck with nostalgia, are performing covers of old-timey trot music on competition shows like “Mister Trot,” which have viewers vote for their favorite acts in an “American Idol”-style format.

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Screenshot from OGAM entertainment that features young musicians singing in the old-timey fox trot style. 

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Screenshot/OGAM entertainment

Many Americans have gotten to know K-pop in recent years, especially as boy band BTS topped the Billboard music charts last year. But in South Korea, young people are turning their attention to an older style of music — trot, a folk genre that has been around for more than 100 years.

These days, South Korean TV viewers are watching young artists perform covers of old-timey trot music on competition shows like “Mister Trot,” which have viewers vote in for their favorite acts in an “American Idol”-style format. Meanwhile, major K-pop artists are also taking up the genre, singing karaoke cover songs on talk shows, or adding their own trotlike elements into their original music.

Related: South Korea has a burgeoning tattoo scene. But most tattoo parlors are illegal.

“I think the reason for the Generation Z's or Generation X's revived interest in the musical genre is not so much nostalgia, but rather because their favorite singers are starting to get into this genre as well,” said John Lee, a freelance commentator on Korean politics and society. 

Originally named after the American fox trot dance of the 1930s, this genre is no doubt uniquely Korean. Trot music has been around since before the Korean War in the early 1950s, and its many transformations are closely tied to major moments in Korean history. 

Shortly after the Korean War, for example, “There were a lot of songs about separation — families separated because of the war, people calling out for their loved ones,” John Lee said. 

Look no further than artist Nam In Soo’s “Vanish Away, 38th Parallel” song from 1949. The song directly addresses the division of the Korean Peninsula from a place of sorrow, which is a far cry from today’s popular trot songs, such as “One Shot” — a viral song that’s literally just about drinking alcohol.

Trot music largely shifted from the melancholy, anguished folk to lovelorn or even jolly music because of the South Korean government’s oppressive postwar dictatorship, which blacklisted any music considered counterproductive to its propaganda. Trot music was also highly stigmatized at the time because of its historical influences from Japan, which brutally colonized the Korean Peninsula until the 1940s.

Related: Unpublished Korean War photos capture a vibrant life in Seoul

Unofficially, they were also going after songs that they felt were counterproductive to the government’s propaganda efforts, and so in the 1960s and 1970s, we saw a lot of trot music that was very happy, unlike music from the 1950s,” John Lee said.

Related: The South Korean government is reviewing its 1950s abortion ban

Lee Taek-Gwang, a professor at Kyunghee University, said that much of the trot music young people enjoy today should be called “semi-trot.” More upbeat, semi-trot sounds a lot more like K-pop than historical folk trot — which makes sense, since some consider trot to be one of K-pop’s roots.

“Young people of the trot generation were called the ‘modern boy’ or the “modern girl” at the time,” Lee Taek-Gwang said. "Actually, K-pop started from the music that these modern boys and modern girls enjoyed. In that sense, we can say that trot is the root of K-pop. But at the same time, K-pop as we now know it came out as a sort of breakaway from trot.”

Mitch S. Shin contributed to this report.

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