The latest from North Korea is that Kim Jong Un has taken a wife, although no one’s sure exactly when, and, oh hey, maybe they had a daughter like two years ago, and… well, as William Goldman once famously said of Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.”
The woman in question was first reported to be a North Korean pop star named Hyon Song-wol, frontwoman for the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band, who had a hit a few years back with a song called “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” (“Girl From the North Country” was taken).
It’s since been confirmed that it was actually a singer named Ri Sol Ju, seen here performing “Footsteps of Soldiers,” a song whose title is the only thing about it that sounds like Black Flag. Of course, as NPR’s Two-Way blog points out, it’s entirely possible that Hyon Song-wol and Ri Sol-ju are the same person, and the voice on “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” does sound a little like the woman singing “Footsteps of Soldiers.”
The one thing that’s for sure is that Kim Jong Un has shacked up with a chanteuse, Sarkozy-style, and the most important thing of all the things is that we now have the chance to discover a couple more truly bizarre North Korean music videos.
North Korea is so relentlessly foreign that when clips like the above surface it’s a reminder that the place actually exists, that there is in fact a nation of people who watch and listen to these things for reasons other than posting them to Facebook.
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The “Footsteps of Soldiers” video is relatively tame, an orchestra, a large chorus and a solo female alto singer wearing what appears to be an enormous turquoise bell performing an overtly militaristic piece of faux-classical music in a generic concert hall setting. The best thing you can say about it is that everyone involved seems supremely competent, though it’s interesting that a country so invested in its distinction from the West would unironically consume what feels like a parody of Euro-American middlebrow culture. Once curiosity wore off — which happened far quicker that I’d hoped — my primary reaction was boredom, like watching a second-rate dinner theater production of The Pirates of Penzance.
Bonchonbo Electronic Music Band’s “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” is something else entirely, a jaunty, upbeat pop song set to a video — and yes, the song is set to the video, not the other way around — of fetching North Korean women working hard and happily. But the music itself is amazing, a major-key melody that sounds like it was plagiarized from a cartoon about cats watching cartoons set to an orchestra that feels like the musical equivalent of the fake town that they blow up in Blazing Saddles.
It’s an elaborate hell of awful ideas, the unhelpful answer to the unasked question “what would pop music sound like if the Beatles/Motown/the Rolling Stones/absolutely everything good never existed?” It’s so barren it resists evaluation: as a music critic I can sit here and say that it seems utterly mechanical and devoid of taste but that would imply that it exists in a universe where “mechanical” is a pejorative, or where the ambiguity of a concept like taste leaves it remotely intelligible, let alone desirable. In other words, it’s also the answer to the question “what would pop music sound like if music criticism never existed?”
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Or any other kind of criticism, for that matter. Calling a piece of music like “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” “bad” is like calling a paperweight “bad”— being “good” or “bad” isn’t its point. A while back a video surfaced of five North Korean children on a stage playing acoustic guitars and it quickly became a viral sensation, not because it was “good” but because it was freakish, five kids playing instruments that were bigger than themselves with a precision that was numbing, then disturbing. It was music that wasn’t meant to be heard so much as it was meant to be displayed, to serve as evidence of something other than itself. That’s a weird thing to make music do, and in a way “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” has the same quality, minus the virtuosity. For all its effort and execution — and you can’t say it lacks either — it still feels like a distracted afterthought, like someone trying to make a soundtrack to ideology while ideology keeps drowning it out.
But for all attempts otherwise there’s still something human to all this, and watching the studiously dull “Footsteps of Soldiers” we still see an attractive young woman with a nice voice and decent stage presence who’s clearly spent years honing her craft and who undoubtedly on some level loves what she does, and if that’s not universal it’s at the very least relatable. And Kim Jong Un, he saw a pretty girl with pipes and decided to figure out a way to go home with her, and even if that’s neither universal nor even particularly relatable, it’s at least one thing he has in common with Jay-Z.