K-pop and Korean music is huge right now. You must have heard of it! Not only in Korea but people worldwide are falling to the charms of the latest Korean artists. It’s easy to understand why. The beautiful girls and boys with their seemingly flawless skin, stylish outfits, and good looks. Finely tuned dance moves and catchy tunes blending together a mix of musical genres to create a unique visual and aural feast for the senses. For these reasons and more, K-pop is quickly becoming more and more popular on a global scale!

So, who is responsible for the most popular Korean song of all time? Is it BTS (방탄소년단, Bangtan Boys), the current Korean boy band not only making hearts flutter in the East but are regularly seen on prime time TV and award shows worldwide? How about Blackpink (블랙핑크) who made headlines recently by becoming the first Korean girl group to play the legendary Coachella festival whilst shattering recent YouTube video view records? Is it PSY, who created the global dance phenomenon known as Gangnam Style to rival that of the macarena?

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A song that reflects Korea

In such a fast-moving industry even the most popular Korean songs and bands can often be lost and forgotten in the blink of the eye. One song however, that has stood the test of time is the traditional folk song Arirang (아리랑). Any Korean person will surely know this song. Perhaps, if the mood takes them, they may even give a rendition of the song to you! It is ingrained as part of what it means to be a Korean – perhaps even more so than their national anthem! This is a song that has existed for an estimated 600 years. It is a simple but beautiful and haunting melody that never fails to evoke strong emotions from the audience. Even without understanding the lyrics, merely by witnessing the expressions and emotions of the crowd, you can understand the great significance of this song to the psyche of the Korean people. You will never fail to see the passion of Korean people singing along to a rendition of this song.

The lyrics themselves are quite mysterious. The word Arirang has no real meaning and there are many, many different versions of this song sung across Korea varying from region to region. However, because the melody is immediately recognizable, it is a song that can be enjoyed and easily performed by one person or in a mass group. Many people can sing along and join in at any time, improvising or using their favourite lyrics. Even with differing lyrics, there are overlapping common themes that are expressed in every version. They mainly focus on the same principles of togetherness, love, and camaraderie, even in the face of separation and hardships. One of the most popular interpretations talks about a young couple who fall in love whilst picking flowers but are separated and unable to meet due to the rising waters of the river.

The most popular and well-known regional versions are probably the Gangwon-do Jongsei Arirang, the Jeolla-do Jindo Arirang, and the Gyeongsang-do Miryang Arirang. A standard Arirang  called the Gyeonggi Arirang was made popular in the 1930’s.

Performance using the Korean traditional instrument – the gayageum.

Arirang’s importance to Korea’s history and culture

In 2012, Arirang was included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List on behalf of South Korea. In fact, the song was entered a second time again in 2014 via North Korea where the song holds a similar significance. There is even an annual mass gymnastics and performance festival in North Korea named after this song. Whenever significant moments or events occur in Korean history, you will often hear something of Arirang. It became a resistance anthem during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). In a particularly memorable display, representatives from both South and North Korea walked together under one flag whilst Arirang played at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In addition to this it was adopted as an unofficial FIFA World Cup song for South Korea in 2002. Also, various formats were sung during the recent 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

So, while you may see fans in dream-like trances, seduced by the latest K-pop trend, with videos racking up millions of views, and assume that this must surely be the pinnacle of popularity – always remember the Arirang. It’s a song that has been around for centuries, spawning literally 1000’s of different versions and can truly be described as ‘The most popular Korean song of all time’!