The viral status of Psy‘s Gangnam Style has reached epic proportions. While some see it as an unprecedented K-pop crossover, others point to its social critique of conspicuous wealth in the South Korean district. However, the tendency for American mainstream culture to accept stereotypical and reductive images of Asians also plays a part in Psy’s popularity.
It’s hard to deny that the song has made an impact in media. Psy’s video appeared at No. 25 on Billboard’s Social 50 chart, which “ranks the most popular artists on YouTube, Vevo, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, using a formula that blends weekly additions of friends/fans/followers along with weekly artist page views and weekly song plays.” Such popularity also made Psy a fixture in American media, earning a mention on CNN as well as write-ups in major publications such as The Atlantic (more on that later).
In addition to appearing at Dodger Stadium, Psy appeared on VH1′s Big Morning Buzz Live show to teach the dance to the hosts. In addition, the popularity of the song put him in conversation with American music celebrities. Yang Hyun Suk (the YG of YG Entertainment) sees Psy’s success as an opportunity: “Regarding the love call from the international pop sensation Justin Bieber, the founder of YG responded, ‘We cannot reveal all the details yet, but an amazing collaboration project is in progress so please look forward to it.’
While some marvel at this popular cultural moment, others seek deeper meaning for Psy’s song in its social critique. Sukjong Hong writes: “PSY does something in his video that few other artists, Korean or otherwise, do: He parodies the wealthiest, most powerful neighborhood in South Korea. . . . Ultimately, by declaring “Oppa is Gangnam Style,” he turns the lens on Gangnam, getting specific about power and privilege in a country where a single district has long dominated in almost every arena.” Max Fisher credits Psy as unique in K-pop: “Park Jaesang isn’t just unusual because of his age, appearance, and style; he writes his own songs and choreographs his own videos, which is unheard of in K-Pop. But it’s more than that. Maybe not coincidentally, he attended both Boston University and the Berklee College of Music, graduating from the latter. His exposure to American music’s penchant for social commentary, and the time spent abroad that may have given him a new perspective on his home country, could inform his apparently somewhat critical take on South Korean society.”
I find the Psy phenomenon in the America interesting, not because of what it says about Korea, but what it says about the United States. Psy’s video did not enter a vacuum; it entered an American popular cultural consciousness that has a history with Korean popular culture in particular, and Asian representations in general. One fan observes this history in a Tumblr entry, “Asian Stars and The USA: A History.” After listing BoA, Wonder Girls, Jin Akanishi, and Girls’ Generation, Asian artists who have been recognized for their talents and attained success in Asian countries but failed to enter the mainstream in the United States, the entry concludes with this observation:
Psy: lol omg guys watch me dance like a horsey.
USA: YES! EXCELLENT!
Psy: Wait what?
Psy’s video owes some of its popularity in the United States to the way the mainstream likes to portray Asian and Asian Americans in popular culture. One of those ways is in comedic roles, where laughter comes at the expense of Asians and Asian Americans. Chris Biddle writes about the tendency he sees in films like The Hangover and television shows like The Office:
Now I’m no kill joy, and admittedly am a fan of both the The Hangover and The Office, but while watching these scenes I couldn’t help but think about the fact that the Western audience seems like they just don’t take Asians seriously. While hearing a French or Latino person speak English might suggest a kind of exoticism, an Asian person speaking English is downright goofy. While on the outside this racial stereotype might not seem as malicious as some of the ones that Hollywood and broadcast television are guilty of, it nonetheless signifies a serious lack of respect for our Eastern counterparts.
What is missing from much commentary on Psy’s video is the existing American cultural context that embraces stereotypes of Asians while rejecting more realistic portrayals. When people ask why Psy’s video is so popular, this is one of the major issues that goes unanswered. I think more people are laughing at Psy than laughing with him.
The narrative that has emerged around Psy’s success in the United States also distorts the story of K-pop for audiences in the United States. Fisher misspeaks when he characterizes Psy as atypical of artists in K-pop, pointing to this as a reason for his success. Psy has contemporaries who do the same thing. At 34, PSY joins other older K-pop artists and groups with successful careers, some of whom debuted around the same time, including Kangta, Park Hyo Shin, Rain, Shinhwa, and Lee Hyori. K-pop artists ranging from G-Dragon to TVXQ write their own material. Tablo of Epik High graduated from Stanford University.
K-pop has been engaging in socially-relevant issues from the beginning. While Seo Jung Min-gaph, a pop music critic, questions his ultimate impact, Seo Taiji, arguably the grandfather of K-pop, unquestionably engaged social issues in his songs: “Seo was not only a dancer and musician, but was also an artist who delivered his messages directly to Korean society with his music.” The narrative seems to be that Psy succeeds because FINALLY K-pop has produced something culturally significant that the United States can recognize. In actuality, Psy is not that different. He’s not the only one by a long shot.
When thinking about what Gangnam Style means, we have to remember that it just doesn’t ride into an America that has not encountered Korean popular culture. The way we’ve been reading it says something about us in the U.S. as well.
‘Gangnam Style’ Viral Video Sends Psy Onto Billboard’s Social 50 Chart,” Billboard
Psy Teaches His ‘Gangnam Style’ Horse Dance on VH1′s ‘Big Morning Buzz Live,’ allkpop
Yang Hyun Suk Discusses His Thoughts on Psy’s Global Success With “Gangnam Style,” allkpop
Sukjong Hong, Beyond the Horse Dance: Viral Vid ‘Gangnam Style’ Critiques Korea’s Extreme Inequality,” Open City Mag
Max Fisher, Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” The Atlantic
Cho Chung-un, K-pop Still Feels Impact of Seo Taiji & Boys,” The Korea Herald
Chris Biddle, The Asian Stereotype, Other Side of China
Psy Gangnam Style News US TV Appearance, YouTube
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