Of Youthful Energy and Young Love: Music in Youth Of May

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by Mich KDL

“I look forward to May the most every year. On a May night, even if you sing badly, the grasshoppers help you out.” –– Hwang Hee-tae, episode 3

Just like how 2020’s When My Love Blooms brought back music from the 90s to the modern-day viewer’s consciousness, the 80s themed Youth of May has also done the same for mid-late 70s tunes. Even amid the backdrop of impending national unrest and underlying oppression, there were still opportunities to tastefully showcase music that encapsulated the energy and creativity of that era’s youth, along with the tender emotions of young love, and even the pain it brings.

Relive some of these moments with us below through the drama’s musical selections –– both local South Korean and foreign.

Note: The references are mostly listed in their respective order of appearance in the drama. While it is understood that there was a government-imposed ban on certain musical genres (and even foreign songs) during that time, it is not known if any of the songs detailed below were banned within that actual timeframe.

Updated: 13/06/2021

Select an episode to view the reference:

Episode 4 / Episode 5 / Episode 6 (a) (b) (c) / Episode 8 (a)(b) / Episode 10Episode 12* /
Bae In-sook & Haeeunlee / Bonus: Days of Memory

*Last episode; potential spoiler. Read at own risk.

Love and Peace (사랑과 평화)

It’s Been A Long Time (한동안 뜸했었지) (1978)

While listening to the title song of this record together with his math tutee Lee Jin-a (Park Se-hyun) in episode 4, Hee-tae (Lee Do-hyun) breaks the silence by asking her about the favorite singer of his crush, Choi Myung-hee (Go Min-si) –– to which she answers: Bae In-sook (see below).

I’ve been idle for a while / Wondering what was going on
Did you happen to be ill / It was so frustrating to figure out

한동안 뜸했었지 왠일일까 궁금했었지
혹시 병이 났을까 너무 답답했었지

It’s Been A Long Time is the funk band Love and Peace‘s first full length album, which was re-released in 1993. In 2007, the Kyunghyang Shinmun named this album as the 12th in their Top 100 Pop Albums list, calling it “one of the best albums in Korean music history that cannot be replicated”. Watch a 2010 performance of the song here.

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DISCO (1979)

At the record store on their first official date in episode 6, Myung-hee picks up this record and shows it to Hee-tae –– who gets a little too close for comfort, much to her (pseudo-)chagrin, and his (genuine) amusement. Its cover is seen again later in the episode, on the wall of the music café they end off their night at.

This album consists of instrumental covers of foreign songs, such as the disco-vibin’ Shake Your Booty by KC & The Sunshine Band (1976) and the classic My Girl by The Temptations (1965), which gets a soulful remake.

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2nd TBC Youth Song Festival
(제2회 TBC 젊은이의 가요제 제2집)

In episode 5, an excited Jin-a tells Hee-tae that she’d already picked out the song they were going to listen to during their tutoring session, but he –– having just come from a tense encounter with Myung-hee outside the house –– had no patience for her frivolousness or enthusiasm.

This is Part 2 (제2집) of the 2nd TBC Youth Song Festival (제2회 TBC 젊은이의 가요제) live recording, which was broadcast live on television from the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts on 21 July 1979. Organised by the then-Tongyeong Broadcasting Company (TBC), this music competition was meant to “encourage healthy singing activities of college students and young people, discover talented new singers, and to improve the quality of broadcasting songs”, according to its original May 1979 Joongang Ilbo newspaper article. Though the winner of the festival was Tapdoli (탑돌이) by Han Seung-gi (한승기), second place song Kite/Yeon (연) by Linus (라이너스) is apparently much more well-known. The festival ended after three editions in 1981, after TBC was incorporated into the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) in accordance with the new military government’s media consolidation policy.

This album was released as an LP on 5th September 1979; the version above features the MCs’ (Im Seung-hoon [임성훈] and an unidentified female) voices. You can also listen to part 1 and part 2 of the album, without the voices.

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John Denver –– Annie’s Song (1974)

Hee-tae and Myung-hee end off their date in episode 6 at the music café, listening to music and writing down their respective list of to-dos – both individually and as a couple. Hee-tae perks up when he hears his requested song being played through the speakers, and points it out to Myung-hee with a big grin on his face. “The song you requested is so good,” she tells him a little later. “What’s the title of it?” Thanks (or no thanks) to Hee-tae’s topic diversion, she probably didn’t find out the song’s name that night.

The song is heard again in episode 8 while Hee-tae is in a taxi in Seoul. This takes him back to the memories he has of and with Myung-hee, which stirs up his emotions.

You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again

Annie’s Song was written and composed by the late American singer-songwriter John Denver (1943-1997), known for other well-known songs like Take Me Home, Country Roads and Leaving On A Jet Plane. Here, the ‘Annie’ in question is Denver’s first wife, with whom he had a brief separation from prior to the song’s creation. According to Denver himself, this song was written over the duration of a ski-lift ride (most accounts say this took place in Aspen, Colorado; at least one says Switzerland) – which took all of ten minutes.

“Suddenly, I’m hypersensitive to how beautiful everything is. All of these things filled up my senses, and when I said this to myself, unbidden images came one after the other. All of the pictures merged, and I was left with Annie. That song was the embodiment of the love I felt at that time.” –– John Denver 

The song, a B-side to his eighth studio album Back Home Again (1974), gave Denver his second number one song in the US, and first (and only) in the UK. He died tragically in a 1997 aircraft accident.

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Nogoziri/Nogojili (노고지리) –– A Cup of Tea (찻잔) (1979)

In response to Myung-hee’s question in episode 6 about the title of his requested song at the music café, Hee-tae cheekily replies: “If you tell me first, I’ll tell you.” She goes on to tell him that she had requested for A Cup of Tea by Nogoziri –– but it turns out that wasn’t what he wanted to know. “I’m asking about what you’ve been thinking about all day with those sad eyes,” he says, a hint of wistfulness in his voice.

Written and composed by Kim Chang-wan (김창완) from rock band Sanulrim (산울림), this song was featured in the band’s second album A Quiet Room (조용한 방), released in November 1979 and reissued in 1992. According to this website, most of the songs in this album were written and composed by Kim. The song’s gain in popularity led to it being featured in various 1970s-80s music compilations, even in the present. Sanulrim also recorded this song in 1980 for their sixth album, Wait A Little Longer (조금만 기다려요).

It regained interest from the public in recent years after it was mentioned by a high school audience member in an episode of the 2019 music variety show Sugar Man 3 (슈가맨3).

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Bae In-sook (배인숙) & Haeeunlee (혜은이)

Both singers were directly or indirectly referenced in Youth of May; the former being mentioned by Jin-a in episode 4 as Myung-hee’s favorite singer, and the latter’s posters seen on Jin-a’s room walls, particularly in episodes 5 and 6.

Bae In-sook (배인숙, b. 1951) first made her debut in 1968 as one half of the duo Pearl Sisters (펄 시스터즈) with her older sister In-soon. After a stream of hits, the duo disbanded when In-soon got married to Choi Won-seok, the then-chairman of the Dong-A Group. The younger Bae then found fame in 1979 with her song Like Anyone (누구라도 그러하듯이), an adaption of the 1975 French chanson (song) Un Poète (A Poet) by Alain Barrière, with the Korean lyrics written by fashion designer Norano. The song drew attention again in the early 2000s when it was featured as part of the soundtrack for the 2003 MBC drama The Woman Living Across the Street (앞집 여자).

Haeeunlee or Hye Eun-yi (혜은이, b. 1954; 1956 per agency website) was a popular singer in the late 1970s and considered the first to be given the ‘Nation’s Younger Sister’ title. She made her debut in 1975 with the song You Won’t Know (당신은 모르실거야) and went on to release 24 albums – her most recent being a 2020 mini-album. The posters on Jin-a’s wall are for two albums: the 7th album, released in March 1979, featuring the hit song The 3rd Hangang Bridge (제3한강교); and the 9th album, released a few months later in December 1979, featuring the songs Graduation (졸업) and I Don’t Cry (울지 않아요).

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Park In-hee (박인희) –– Bonfire (모닥불) (1976)

In episode 8, this is the song that is briefly heard on Myung-hee’s radio after Hee-tae successfully fixes it. “You could set up a radio store in the hills,” she jokingly suggests, which he agreed with.

Park In-hee (b. 1945) was best known for being “one of the representative acoustic guitar singers” of the 1970s, with her calm and elegant voice. The song Bonfire is from her 1976 LP of the same name, featuring the B-side title track Face (얼굴).

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Bette Midler –– The Rose (1979)

Hee-tae picks up the radio again shortly after, turning the knob on the side to tune it. “When I was young,” he says to an attentive Myung-hee, “I liked to change the channels on the radio more than actually listening to it. If I slowly changed them like this, sometimes I’d find a faint and unfamiliar signal. That signal always seemed like myself. No one would look for me. It was a signal without colour or sound, just floating around in the universe.” He finally settles on a radio channel, and with this song playing softly in the background, he turns to Myung-hee and concludes, “Until you came to look for me.”

Some say love, it is a river
That drowns the tender reed
Some say love, it is a razor
That leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love, it is a hunger
An endless aching need
I say love, it is a flower
And you, its only seed

Originally written between 1977-78 by American singer-songwriter Amanda McBroom, The Rose was selected by singer Bette Midler (b. 1945) to be recorded for her 1979 movie of the same name. Aside from reaching number one on two charts, the song won Midler the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance award at the 1981 Grammy Awards. McBroom also received the Best Original Song award at the 1979 Golden Globe Awards.

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Chopin – Waltz in C-sharp Minor Op. 64 No. 2 (1847)

In an episode 10 flashback, Hee-tae and his friend Kim Kyung-soo (Kwon Young-chan) hang out at a coffee shop in Seoul, as they discuss Kyung-soo being egged on by his school seniors to join the student protests. “It’s my choice,” he calmly tells his friend. “I’m not doing it because they’re making me.” This makes Hee-tae scoff a little, muttering at how they just don’t see eye to eye, adding, “And why is your taste in music so bad?” Kyung-soo doesn’t let that snide comment phase him. “You told me to request a song I want to listen to,” he points out. This song is heard over the radio later in the episode while Hee-tae accompanies hospital doctor Yoo Byeong-cheol (Jang Won-hyuk) on a run to collect blood donations from the public.

This piano waltz, composed by Polish piano virtuoso and composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), is the second work of his opus 64 and the companion to the ‘Minute Waltz’ (Op. 64, No. 1), along with being one of his last compositions before his death in 1849. The (rather illuminating) piano cover of it above is by Youtuber pianist Rousseau.

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Sharp (샤프) –– After The Play Ends (연극이 끝난 후…) (1980)

While distributing missing person flyers at an eatery in final episode 12, a dispirited Hee-tae pauses momentarily to watch the program airing on TV. It was the 1980 MBC Campus Song Festival (제4회 MBC 대학가요제), which he had dreamt of taking part in before graduating from university. As he listened to the song by its final contestants, emotions began welling up within him, leading him to break down in tears; though not so much from being unable to fulfil his dream of performing.

연극이 끝나고 난 뒤
혼자서 객석에 남아
조명이 꺼진 무대를
본 적이 있나요

음악 소리도
분주히 돌아가는 세트도
이젠 다 멈춘채
무대 위엔
정적만이 남아있죠
어둠만이 흐르고 있죠…
침묵만이 흐르고 있죠

After the play comes to an end
Have you ever stayed in your seat
Looking at the stage
When the lights go off?

The sound of music
And the bustling set
Have now all stopped
On the stage
There’s only silence left
There’s nothing but darkness…
There’s nothing left but loneliness

After The Play Ends, or After Play per some versions, was written and composed by then-19-year-old Sungkyunkwan University engineering freshman Choi Myeong-seob (최명섭). Along with six sophomore students from universities like Yonsei, Konkuk, Kyonggi, and Sookmyung Women’s, they formed the group Sharp. The song garnered them the silver award at the festival.

In a 2020 comment addressing plagiarism claims of it sounding like the 1979 Japanese city pop song Stay With Me by Miki Matsubara, Choi said that he was “influenced by [his] father, who was a composer”, which had him “open[ing his] eyes to the world of music early in [his] childhood”. “In my youth, I was into fusion jazz, black soul, and funky music, and this led to ‘After The Play Ends’ being inspired by the same style,” he shared. “Many say that the song’s musical style was ahead of its time. In fact, it was an early attempt to infuse one that was already mainstream in the American pop music industry, but which was still unfamiliar in Korea. I think that’s why the public felt that this was fresh.”

Choi also added: “This song was created then with the desire to participate in the campus song festival, which was a stage of envy for college students at the time. I consider it both a pleasure and a reward to have been able to entertain many people for a long time.” The original footage of the group’s festival performance (seen above) was also the same one aired in Youth of May.

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Jung Joon-il (정준일) — Days In Memory (
기억의 나날) (2021)

In episode 3, Hee-tae hums along to this tune while playing it on the guitar for Myung-hee outside her homestay –– most likely the song he was inspired to write after their blind date together, as seen in episode 2. This gentle folk ballad –– quite possibly Hee-tae’s very own soundtrack –– is actually Days In Memory by singer-songwriter Jung Joon-il, part 6 of the series’ OST.

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Have thoughts about the music heard in this series, or how they’ve stirred up your own memories from that era? Tell us more in the comments!

 Check out our Youth of May overview or view the full list of Youth of May locations on KDL.


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