TXT, Seo Taiji, and K-Pop’s Record of Youth

TXT’s breezy b-side track “We Lost The Summer” begins with the sound of a ticking clock. Then, a sparkling marimba beat and a young voice breathily lamenting a season forfeited to time and circumstance. As the bright dancehall rhythm intensifies, so do the mournful sentiments of loss and longing. It’s a song wrapped in shiny cellophane, the color of cotton candy—the taste of bitter lemon piths. For many teens, including the members of K-pop group TOMORROW X TOGETHER, that’s the reality of 2020; time ticks away, and yet we’re caught in an endless state of staticity, or an “eternal winter,” as TXT sings on the aptly titled pop tune from their new EP Minisode1: Blue Hour.

Tomorrow X Together, whose members range in international age from 18 to 21, have captured the complicated and oftentimes confusing feelings of adolescence through their music since their debut in 2019. “Crown” is an energetic reflection of physical and emotional growing pains; the edgier “9 and Three Quarters (Run Away)” celebrates the transformative magic of friendship; and this past May’s “Can’t You See Me?” bubbles with broody resentment as they continue to navigate their relationship to one another. Their most recent single, “Blue Hour,” continues that coming-of-age journey and paints the whimsical picture of boyhood in shades that are colorful and complex. These broad strokes of youth are designed to be relatable to almost anyone. But “We Lost The Summer” is specific to the here and now.

Written in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic that continues to devastate families and disrupt our daily lives, the song expresses this unforgettable moment in time through the eyes of young people who are living through it. “People lost routineness in their lives,” member Beomgyu explained to Elle. “People of our age couldn’t even physically attend school anymore. This song is a teen narrative about the changes in the world this year.” With lyrics (translated to English) like “I’m left on the endless evening of March 1,” the track balances feelings of immense loss with the minutiae of a new reality, speaking to a generation that feels stuck in limbo—whose concerns and perspectives adults often overlook.

So perhaps it’s not surprising then that Bang Si-hyuk, the founder and co-CEO of BTS and TXT’s parent company Big Hit Entertainment, drew inspiration for “We Lost The Summer” from a 1998 Korean pop song from his own youth sung by three teenage sisters known as Han’s Band.

Their song “Arcade” (“오락실”) was released at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis that led to the worst economic recession in South Korea’s postwar history. Sisters and instrumentalists Kim Han-na, Kim Han-byul, and Kim Han-sam—who were junior high students at the time—sing of a young girl who meets her unemployed father at the arcade after school. The girl never realizes that her dad is out of a job; through her naive eyes, she thinks he’s skipping work to play games. But the harsh reality of that time—when unemployment was at an all-time high and men left their homes every morning only to wander aimlessly—is reflected in the lyrics. “Today’s headlines say,” they sing in childlike wonder, “there are many dads in the arcade.”

There’s a YouTube clip of Han’s Band performing their hit song on a 1999 episode of Music Camp, a now-defunct televised live music show. The comments, written in Korean, are full of people who watched their own dads endure the same hardships when they were kids. Art is a mirror of society, a reflection of a place and time—of thoughts and feelings. But rarely are the views of young people taken seriously. Except in K-pop, where the trials, tribulations, and labor of youth is the very foundation of the multi-billion dollar industry.

Several years prior to the debut of Han’s Band, a different trio took South Korea by storm: Seo Taiji and Boys. The birth of modern K-pop is largely attributed to their first televised performance of “난 알아요 (I Know)” —a frenetic mix of Western influences like hip-hop, new jack swing, and guitars, with lovesick Korean lyrics—on MBC’s weekend music show on April 11, 1992. Singer, songwriter, and former metalhead Seo Taiji, 20, joined dancers Yang Hyun-seok, 22, and Lee Juno, 25, as the group glided and two-stepped across the stage, bringing a new brand of coordinated choreography and swagger to the masses. Seo Taiji and Boys famously received the lowest score of any of the acts performing that night, but it didn’t matter. The song and their style instantly struck a chord with Korean youth, who were ready to embrace a new sound: Dance-oriented hip-hop heavily influenced by the West and seeped in raw intensity. The track skyrocketed to the top of the charts, where it would stay for 17 weeks.

“Seo Taiji represented the new generation in Korea,” Areum Jeong, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute tells Teen Vogue. In the ‘90s, the South Korean media referred to teens as sinsedae, which translates to “the new generation.” Jeong, who was in third grade when Seo Taiji and Boys debuted with their self-titled album, recalls how—much like today—young people were largely an enigma to the older generation. “They would ask, why do they listen to weird music and wear loud, flashy clothes?” she says. Notably, it was also the first time teens had real buying power in Korea’s economy. “A lot of American brands were importing into Korea, and baggy, hip-hip fashion was in style,” she adds. “Seo Taiji could represent us—not just through the music, but also the lyrics, the fashion, the dance, everything. They gave us a voice.”

They used that voice to loudly speak out against the status quo. Seo Taiji and Boys’ subsequent singles addressed more potent sociopolitical issues affecting young people, while also maintaining their hodgepodge hip-hop aesthetics. Their 1994 metal-infused track “Classroom Idea” criticized South Korea’s stressful education system for mentally and creatively stifling its students, while 1995’s “Come Back Home” urged teenage runaways to come home and quell their inner rage. Through their music, they amassed a loyal following of youth devotees who viewed them as modern prophets. However, the group burned bright and fast; by 1996, they would retire—but their impact laid the groundwork for an entire industry.

In only a few years, Seo Taiji and Boys had completely disrupted Korea’s music scene, which had previously been home to older solo artists and more traditional trot singers. More importantly, their success empowered record labels to make the next teen sensation. While boy group H.O.T. would ultimately become the prototype of the teen idol group in 1996, they weren’t the first. That distinction belongs to two teenage boys: Choi Hyuk-jun and Lee Se-sung, also known as IDOL.

In February 1996, dance duo IDOL—a younger, more bubblegum alternative to popular duos like Turbo and Deux—debuted with “Bow Wow,” a hip-hop track that, in true Seo Taiji fashion, rebelled against the oppressive older generation and encouraged kids their age to do whatever they wanted to do, and to bark back at society. “Bow wow, everything you want to do is up to you,” they rap. “You can live in the name of freedom.” The song climbed the charts, eventually hitting No. 1 just months before the debut of SM Entertainment’s H.O.T.

“They were really popular [with teenagers] because the boys were 15, 16 years old,” Jeong says. “It was really refreshing at that time to see somebody so young on stage.”

Even though IDOL disbanded almost as quickly as they had debuted, the idea of turning teenagers into stars who could dance, sing, and rap about their generation’s ills stuck. The mega-success of H.O.T. would all but solidify this.

H.O.T. (an acronym for “Highfive Of Teenagers”) entered the scene with the album We Hate All Kinds of Violence, and they ushered in a new era of pop groups that could serve up a spectrum of dance-oriented concepts from head-banging to teen crush. Its lead single, “Warrior’s Descendant,” was a powerful, pointed critique of schoolyard bullying infused with rock and roll aesthetics, while the second release, “Candy,” was an upbeat, boyish love song that showed off the group’s youthful charms. (Needless to say, “Candy” was the bigger hit, and “Warrior’s Descendant” has been covered by everyone from B.A.P to Oneus.) The five members of H.O.T. were young, handsome, and extremely popular with teen girls.

Boy groups like Sechs Kies (“School Byeolgok”) and Shinhwa (“Resolver”) followed suit, making music with timely messages that struck an emotional chord with young consumers. Common themes included school violence, student stress, anxiety over uncertain futures, and socioeconomic worries—the threads of which can still be found today in the music and visuals of BTS, SEVENTEEN, Stray Kids, CIX, TXT, Bolbbalgan4, and more. The pangs of adolescence were not only integral to the industry’s domestic success but also its global growth. After the Asian Financial Crisis of the late ’90s, South Korea aimed to bolster its cultural influence through creative exports like Korean dramas and K-pop. This became known as the Korean Wave, or hallyu.

As second generation groups like SHINee, Girls’ Generation, and BIGBANG began to expand their resonance outside of Asia, they also gained the ability to reach young people around the globe with their music and performances. The stages got bigger, bolder, and more choreographed; the groups got bigger too, as designating specialized roles within groups and international casting from China, Japan, and North America became the industry standard. Advances in technology and social media gave third generation groups like B.A.P and EXO the opportunity to go even further, bypassing cultural barriers and physical distance to connect with teens directly through their screens and share their music worldwide.

Perhaps no one understood the true value of fostering such a profoundly sincere and uniquely online relationship between artist and fan quite like Big Hit’s Bang Si-hyuk. He created future Billboard chart-toppers BTS with the goal of giving young people artists they could not only empathize with, but who could also provide a sense of support and comfort through their music—and through their very existence as a group of savvy digital natives who could utilize tools like streaming platform VLive, YouTube, and Twitter to regularly communicate with their fans.

“I recently came across a company document from [2012,] the year before BTS debuted, in which we were debating what kind of idol group to create,” Bang Si-hyuk told South Korean newspaper JoongAng in 2018. “It said, ‘What kind of hero is the youth of today looking for? Not someone who dogmatically preaches from above. Rather, it seems like they need a hero who can lend them a shoulder to lean on, even without speaking a single word.”

In 2013, BTS debuted with “No More Dream,” a fiery takedown of South Korea’s rigid education system that squanders individualism in favor of blind ambition. The song itself was influenced by the debut tracks from senior artists H.O.T. and Sechs Kies, a dynamic combination of hip-hop and socially conscious lyrics. “We tried to tell the story of our generation,” dancer and vocalist Jimin says in a 2017 episode of JTBC’s Please Take Care of My Refrigerator. “So I think we were largely influenced [by H.O.T. and Sechs Kies].” Another 2013 single from BTS, “N.O,” railed against the high expectations placed upon teenagers to attend Korea’s most prestigious universities. “Adults say that we have it so easy,” RM raps. “They say I’m on my way to happiness / Then how do you explain my unhappiness?”

“There’s not a lot of fluidity to life [in South Korea],” Colette Balmain, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in Media and Communications at Kingston University, tells Teen Vogue. Especially for youths, who are more stressed out than their international peers. A 2018 survey from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs found that on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the happiest, South Korean youth ages nine to 17 rated their overall happiness level a six-point-57, making them some of the least happy among the OECD nations. And research shows they face extreme stress due to overwhelming academic pressure. In South Korea, young people spend an average of 12 hours a day on their schoolwork, including a full day of classes, after-school exam prep, and hours of homework. “Everything is very rigid, and young people have a lot of responsibility to succeed,” Balmain adds. “Education is rigid, and they have very little free time and very little chance to be kids, I think.”

In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, Korea Exposé co-founder and editor-in-chief Se-Woong Koo wrote, “To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance and obedience.” That sentiment is what ultimately seeps into the country’s art and culture. According to Balmain, it’s one of the reasons why youth can be such a compelling concept to revisit in music, not only for K-pop artists but also for listeners—that it’s a stage in life that feels both universal and fleeting. “The fantasy of youth is the youth you don’t really have,” she adds.

Additionally, Korea’s growing economic gap is only putting more pressure on young people to rise above their circumstances amid spiking unemployment and underemployment rates. Though not necessarily worse than other nations, the country’s widening inequality has become a hot-button issue for citizens and auteurs alike. Young South Koreans are called the spoon generation, according to Jeong, emphasizing the divide between “dirt spoons” (those born into low-income families) and “gold spoons” (those who come from money and have more resources to get ahead). “They’re also called the give-up generation,” Jeong says. “They’ve had to give up marriage, dating, children, and buying a house. Based on how affluent you are, young people divide themselves, so you see a lot of disappointed and angry young people. They don’t see any hope or future for themselves.”

“And the boomers, or the kkondae (Korean slang for “condescending old person”), always preach that you have to work hard,” she adds. “And the younger generation is so fed up with that. They know that they can probably never catch up even if they work really hard, so that disappointment in some way gets comforted by idol music, especially music about young people’s struggles or vulnerabilities. They might be struggling with disadvantages, and they find comfort in music that speaks to that.”

Take fourth generation group Stray Kids’ 2019 single “Gone Days,” for example. The song title is a play on words—”Gone Days” in English sounds similar to the Korean phrase “kkondae,” and the song itself is a playful kiss-off to an older generation that’s frustratingly out of touch with the real concerns of teens today. “Never mind the past,” they sing on the hook. “This is the new generation, go away.” Meanwhile, teenage girl group ITZY burst onto the scene with 2019’s “DALLA DALLA,” a boisterous celebration of youthful bravado; the song was so popular with the South Korean public that it landed at No. 11 on Gaon’s Year-End Digital Chart, making it the second best-performing idol group song of 2019 after BTS and Halsey’s “Boy With Luv.” According to Balmain, these themes also resonate internationally. “It’s a message that’s very cultural, and yet other young people around the world can relate to it,” she says. “Because they, too, feel like nobody is listening to them.”

And while fans of Korean pop music have never been more diverse, spanning multiple generations and many cultures, there’s something especially significant about your relationship to art when you’re young—when the world seems so much bigger, and your place in it so much more unknown. “We’re living in a time that’s so uncertain that you need to believe that a future is possible,” Balmain says. “And young people don’t always know how to articulate the struggles that they go through, so it’s very important to give them that message.”

Hopeful messages wrapped in marimba beats and sparkling synths, or communicated over livestreams and Twitter replies—messages that are becoming increasingly more common today as more K-pop artists not only debut as young teens but also come of age in front of a digital audience of millions. Now, fans can find inspiration through a group’s music and through the members themselves, who are honestly navigating their own youth.

During a recent press conference for SEVENTEEN’s latest album ; [Semicolon], rapper Vernon said that the meaning the group wanted to convey with this eclectic “record of youth” was simple: “We need to take time to look around and soundly enjoy the youth we have right now.” On the surface, their exuberant single “HOME;RUN” is a far cry from Seo Taiji’s “Classroom Idea”; it doesn’t rage against a capitalist society consumed by class and hierarchy. Instead, it’s blindingly optimistic—”Don’t give up,” they sing, “we’ll wake up to a new tomorrow”—but in 2020, that’s radical in its own way. As radical as five teenage boys braving an eternal winter over a tropical beat, a reassuring nod to the spring day that one day awaits.

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