I wish I had a better memory. My older brother is able to remember the time, location and social context of an obscure event from 10 years ago — while it would take me a few moments to remember what I did last weekend. Even in pre-quarantine conditions, where every day used to feel significant and unique, I struggled. So for me, Mr. Wait-What-Happened-Last-Tuesday, I find myself particularly allured by music’s ability to transport you, full body, into a version of yourself you’ve since left behind, but can sit quietly within — warmly accompanied by the golden glimmer of moments passed.
Recently, I’ve found a lot of solace in these moments of quiet remembrance. Usher’s “Confessions” teleports me to a 10-year-old body and mind — self-awareness almost fully installed into my hard drive, with a few hiccups — where my only troubles involved being rejected from Odyssey of the Mind and the crippling realization that I had to actually tackle people at football practice. Brent Faiyaz’s “Sonder Son” teleports me into my first months of first year — fresh off of Googling “U.Va. Clubs,” putting them in a folder, and after hitting 30 dead-ends, quietly deleting the folder in the still, thick air of my rank dorm room. Yes, old dorms, and yes, boys hall. And yes, I did find things to do eventually — this time soundtracked by Frank Ocean’s “Moon River.”
But not all songs, in our minds, are accompanied by any notable memories. We listen to new music when doing homework, when mowing the lawn, when eating hot chip — tons of songs in our mental catalogue aren’t accompanied by any memories at all. They hold the unique ability to merely exist, void of context — feeding off of what today brings, and not what yesterday told. That’s how we arrive at “Haenim” by Kim Jung Mi, the first track off of her 1973 record “Now,” humankind’s definitive and eternal magnum opus.
“Haenim” is one of those songs that, in my mind, holds no distinct memories — I must’ve been doing something really boring when first listening. It’s a track turned loose — an ethereal, rogue being, unconstrained by memory. The beauty within this personal reality is “Haenim’s” sonic malleability — this song can perfectly soundtrack any and all swells of emotion, bringing me a perfect sense of comfort without having to hit the rewind button on my life. “Haenim,” instead, hits pause. More on this in a bit — first, some background.
Kim Jung Mi, alongside her mentor — the fabled psych-rock grand wizard Shin Joong Hyun — wrote and recorded “Haenim” during tumultuous times in South Korean history. A military dictatorship had loomed over South Korea’s people for around a decade. At the time of this record’s creation, President Park Chung-hee had recently passed the Yushin Constitution — legislation that would ultimately gift himself a permanent presidency. South Korea’s Ministry of Education was evaporated — replaced with a curriculum guided by textbooks supporting the military regime — and the democratic process was demolished. A censorship in public and private expression drenched South Korea's social fabric, with even live music being forced underground. Through “Haenim,” Kim Jung Mi immortalizes a collection of fleeting moments, fluent in repressed memory.
“Haenim” swells with a saturating grandiosity. Shin Joong Hyun’s light guitar licks towards the beginning are only a loading screen for the subsequent mental hot air balloon ride over the mountains. “Haenim” feels gargantuan, but peaceful — like wading in the quaint pond that sits at the foot of an omnipotent waterfall. Kim Jung Mi’s booming, haunting vocals, accompanied by a gorgeous, pulsating string section, bring the track to a feeling of other-worldliness — like every passing second is a second closer to self-realization, or the solar system. The lyrics themselves also reflect this sonic weightlessness. “무지개 타고 햇님을 만나러” roughly translates to “let’s ride on a rainbow to meet the sun,” “고요한 이곳에 날으는 새들이 / 나를 위하여 노래 불러 주네” roughly translates to “birds are flying in this silent place / they are singing for me.”
“Haenim” gifts listeners a personal blank slate, acting as an ever-refreshing paint-by-number kit — except listeners bring new emotional palettes with every passing listen. I imagine this song as a black-out concert inside the Pantheon, where it’s just me, Kim Jung Mi, Shin Joong Hyun and the dark. I can sing, I can dance, I can cry, I can sit, I can stir, I can remember and I can forget. “Haenim” provides me a space where I can just be.
I find myself in a bind. The point of these articles is to inspire readers to check out the recommendations, to form their own opinions, to share their own favorites, the whole shebang. But now, closing out a month that has hastily evaporated at our fingertips, I write an article on the importance of music’s immortal memory — and I ask you to listen to a song while the world’s starting to unhinge — where our only collective memory feels like tragedy and isolation.
So here’s a challenge — pick a sunny day, take a cautious step outside, and do something you love. Strap on your rollerblades, hop on a bike, lace up your sneakers — whatever makes you happy — and listen to “Haenim.” That way, the best song of all time will always remind you of the one time you did your absolute best in imperfect circumstances — and that’s all you can ask of yourself. It’s okay to immortalize survival.