Almost paradise: K-dramas and their OSTs
A drama’s OST, or original soundtrack, is a powerful player in dramaland. It has the ability to single-handedly make or break the show’s strongest and most powerful scenes. The soundtrack can either elicit more tears than you care to shed over parted lovers, thwarted lovers, and reunited lovers — or it can make you gag and hit fast-forward (or at least mute).
I’ve discovered two simple words that express the earth-shaking power of a drama’s soundtrack: almost paradise. And if you’ve seen Boys Before Flowers, you not only know exactly what I’m talking about, but the infamous T-Max song has already started playing in your head, and probably will continue to do so all week. You’re welcome.
What I’m getting at is that sometimes a drama’s soundtrack — and that one, specific overplayed theme song — eclipses the drama itself. One such offender that comes to mind is Changmin’s “Moment” from the Heirs OST. If ever there was an overused, hive-inducing song inserted into a drama, it was this one.
“Love is the mooooooment!” burst out so frequently anytime our leads were together that it became more troublesome than the drama’s actual antagonists. Did the confusing English phrasing make it better or worse? I’m still undecided. Love is the moment? For me, love is the moment when I hit the mute button with ninja-level speed.
Frequency of playback is also to blame for taking some nice drama soundtracks and turning them into abhorrent tunes I never want to hear again. I love the team behind Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food and One Spring Night, and they have a way of carefully curating songs that fit the tone of these dramas — but then they murder them by repeating the songs multiple times per episode. No exaggeration.
In One Spring Night, a leading character could not move from any location without the sudden burst of Rachel Yamagata’s “No Direction” to accompany them. It was okay the first few times, but soon it overpowered whatever was happening on screen. And in Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food it was more of the same. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman? Yes. But sometimes it is also hard to be a K-drama watcher.
Something interesting about OSTs is that I find my reaction to them changes over the course of my drama watching. At first, it’s okay. A song like LYn’s “My Destiny” (of You From Another Star fame) is expected in such a drama. But by the time we’re on the fifth replay, it’s already starting to get to me. By the last episodes of the drama, I’m either making fun of it, or singing along in a hilarious voice (or maybe they’re one in the same?).
When the theme song is killed by overuse, it also kills whatever emotion the production team was hoping it would elicit. I can safely say I would have enjoyed You From Another Star just as much if that song were missing in action.
But here’s the funny part. After time passes, the nails-on-chalkboard reaction quiets. And if I hear the song again — in a clip, homage, or even a spoof — I feel a happy burst of drama nostalgia.
How can something that started out as egregious and annoying become something that can manifest nostalgia in a snap? Music is powerful. It carries us back to memories, places, people, emotions — even to K-dramas past.
Sometimes the nostalgia is just around the drama, as with You From Another Star. I’ll think fondly on the awesomeness of Jun Ji-hyun, the fashion and makeup crazes she sparked, and usually end this thought process with, “How is she so gorgeous?!”
But there’s a deeper nostalgia, too, and if we’re talking about the emotions brought on by the chorus of “Almost Paradise,” I’m whisked back to my first-ever K-drama — and to everything that was going on in my own life then, too.
Music can spark memories and emotions, but isn’t it amazing how it can make you remember things you don’t even remember remembering? This happens to me all the time in real life, when music brings me back to a certain chapter or circumstance in my life — but it happens in dramaland too.
I didn’t know there was a little filing cabinet in my brain for K-drama OSTs, but it seems there is. All I had to do was click on Yoonmirae’s “Always” and *whoosh* I was back in Uruk and thinking about that strangely romantic drama.
Soundtracks can be powerful tools of remembering, and while I’ve been picking on some particularly poor ones, there are many instances where the opposite is true. There are many OSTs that are so wonderful or special that they cause ripples of happiness whenever they are heard, long after the drama is over. Crush’s “Beautiful” from The Lonely Shining Goblin is one of those for me. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing — the second I hear that piano intro, I’ve stopped to listen.
The theme song from Healer is another one that makes me infectiously happy. It’s not just because I loved the drama so much, but there is something about “Eternal Love” that’s just epic. Is it the strings? The slow journey to the chorus? The total cheesiness? Either way, this is one drama OST that makes me want to jump on the couch instead of hide under it.
A more recent (but equally infectious) example is the use of VERIVERY’s “My Beauty” in the closing credits of Extraordinary You. There is nothing like finishing out a fantastic episode with a song that makes you love the world of the story even more — and then, like we were saying before, becomes synonymous with it. Because I can’t play “My Beauty” in my car without seeing the Stage and Shadow, and all those wonderful characters lined up in my mind’s eye.
But there’s another use of music in K-dramas that goes a step beyond the OST and theme song, and that’s the use of music within the world the drama. This is common for music-focused dramas, of which there are many, but none did it better for me than Shut Up: Flower Boy Band.
All these years later, Sung Joon singing “Wake Up” and “Today” still gut me as much as they did when I first watched the drama. These songs are as strong within the drama (as a part of the plot) are they are outside of it (as a part of the drama).
There are so many other examples of in-drama music that were particularly well-done, but one of my absolute meta-y favorites was the classical guitar song “Memories of the Alhambra” in the Hyun Bin drama of the same name. In a story that played with the line between reality and fiction, this song — and that eerie, almost mythical guitar playing — became more than a mere song. It signified the shift of boundaries, worlds, and all this time later I can’t hear it without looking over my shoulder and wondering who or what I’ll find there. (And sadly, no, it’s not Hyun Bin.)
While I’ve picked on a lot of the drama OSTs that have threatened to drive me crazy, the main point here is not my lack of patience for overpowering ballads, but the fact that music plays an important part in the drama experience. And though I might complain, when it comes down to it, I actually love them, because they’re an integral part of the K-drama package.
Whether it’s a catchy song that you can’t wait to hear at the closing credits, or a song that’s woven into the very fabric of the drama itself, music has the power to elevate a drama into pure magic. And if it doesn’t make magic, well, it still makes something memorable.