’90s culture revival enters full swing

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Nov 3, 2013 - 19:45
  • Updated : Nov 3, 2013 - 19:48
In 1994, there were no smartphones linking people 24 hours a day, no flashy Starbucks with fashionable lounge music and no “League of Legends” to blow gamers’ minds away.

Instead, people queued in front of public pay phones to page their friends, make confessions of love or mumble after binge drinking. Trendy boys and girls in baggy jeans would flock to Kentucky Fried Chicken for biscuits and move to “rock cafes” to hook up; listen to Seo Tai-ji, the so-called president of teenagers, for fresh and rebellious music and lyrics; and kill time by playing “Pacman.”

That 1990s nostalgia is reemerging, detailing the smallest moments to reminisce on the heyday of Korea’s mass pop culture that is rarely seen less than 20 years later. 

Poster for "Answer me 1994" (CJ E&M)
Starting the trend was the phenomenal success of TV drama series “Eungdaphara (Answer me),” which portrays the love, friendship and touching stories of people living in 1994 and 1997. The former was the year after Kim Young-sam was sworn in as the first civilian president. In 1997, at the height of Korea’s economic boom, the country saw armies of fans in pop culture, before a financial meltdown hit.

The dramas feature things that tug at the heartstrings of now 30- or 40-somethings ― the recording of music on a pager, drinking OB beer, playing “Assa” self-presentation games, and other things. There are less than 18,000 pager users left, people drink Max or Cass and university freshmen make YouTube videos and others for their school orientations now.

The drama “Answer Me 1994,” which began airing on Oct. 18 following its successful predecessor “Answer Me 1997,” which aired early this year, gained a 6.9 percent viewership, and it is expected to soar in the next 14 episodes. According to tvN, the producer of the drama, “Answer Me” became the most-viewed weekend TV drama among those 20-49 years old. “Neo-ae-ge (to you),” originally sung by Seo Tai-ji and Boys in 1993 and remade by Sung Si-kyung as the drama’s soundtrack, topped local charts for seven days.

“It really brought me back to the days when I was a freshman at university, wandering around Sinchon, where Yonsei and Ewha Womans universities are located. I was naive, ignorant and foolish but at the same time young, and was ready to take on whatever came my way,” said Kim Hyun-su, manager of a multinational company. “Just thinking about the vivid memories made me giggle, smile and sometimes reduced to tears.”

Critics note that now is the right time to talk about the 1990s.

“Since 1988, an overseas travel ban has been lifted and foreign culture has flooded into Korea, opening a sort of renaissance of Korean pop culture, and those who were teenagers or in their early 20s at the time were the first beneficiaries of the change,” said culture critic Choi Won-taek in an interview. “And many people who are tired of the lack of something special in today’s culture tend to be retrospective, seeking for a period they could depend on,” he added.

Chung Deok-hyun, another critic, said that the 1990s were a time when pop culture first exploded here.

“They were economically affluent and the development of computers made their hobbies possible. Pop culture became more of participatory culture, involving more people, even till now,” he said in an interview.

And thanks to the retro boom, some of the icons of the 1990s are returning to the limelight.

Bamgwa Eumaksai, a club franchise with branches in Gangnam, Hongdae and other places in Seoul, plays ’90s music all day and is seeing endless rows of people in their late teens or early 20s dancing to the music. Singers Lim Chang-jung, Lee Jung-hyun and Shin Seung-hun, who were popular mostly in the ’90s, are making comebacks with new albums. Members of former idol groups H.O.T, Sechs Kies, g.o.d and NRG, all legendary in the 1990s, formed HotSechGodRG, appealing to fans who are now in their 30s.

Some ‘90s classic films including “Leon” (1994), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Christmas in August” (1998), “Chungking Express” (1994) and “Ashes of Time” (1994) have been digitally remastered and released at local theaters. “The movies of 1990s have what people call unforgettable moments. They have the unique sentiment that the current films do not have, and audiences can reflect on the old days by watching them,” said Kim Eun, a promoter of ’90s films.

But retro does not mean instant success. “Cheongchun Night” concert series featuring iconic ’90s singers, tanked in their nationwide tour while many of those who attempted a comeback have seen little success.

“It means that retro should be able to offer something more than a simple regression to the past. They should be able to catch what people need and remix it with the current vibe,” said Kang Tae-kyu, another culture critic.

By Bae Ji-sook (