Psy, Let’s talk about Gangnam Style

November 19, 2012
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On election day 2012, Mike Morin of New Hampshire’s WZID-FM pressed President Obama on the future of the nation: “If you’re reelected, might you and the First Lady bust out your take on the Gangnam Style dance in January?” By this point, it would be redundant to state that the “Gangnam Style” music video starring South Korean rapper/singer Psy has become a global phenomenon—in fact, you know you have a hit when your sworn mortal enemy is producing parodies of the video. For countries in East and Southeast Asia—such as Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines (among many others)—the appearance of South Korean popular culture has not been an unusual sight for the past two decades. Branded as the “Korean Wave” (Hallyu) by Asian journalists, this term refers to the explosion of popularity of South Korean cultural products such as television dramas, films, and pop music within the Asian Pacific region and beyond.

While the Korean Wave continues to have immense success within mainstream Asian pop culture, its reach in the United States has been generally limited to cult status before the emergence of “Gangnam Style,” especially in the realm of Korean pop music, or K-pop. The Korean female singer BoA, who had great success in all of Asia, released an English-language album in 2009 that peaked at 127 on the US Billboard 200, resulting in her return to South Korea. Other failures included Se7en’s “Girls” and Girl Generation’s “The Boys,” which awkwardly featured US rappers Lil’ Kim and Snoop Dogg, respectively. The most successful K-pop act before Psy were The Wonder Girls, with their English-language single “Nobody” debuting at number 76 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009. Still, their follow-up singles have not yet matched their debut numbers.

When we look back at these attempts to enter the US market by Korean artists and compare them with “Gangnam Style,” what is most intriguing (and somewhat humorous) is the difference in the effort to gain visibility in mainstream US popular culture. The culture industries of Korea are, as their name states, very industrial in nature. Many K-pop stars are selected by record labels at a young age—BoA was 11 when she was recruited—and then go through rigorous training in dance, vocals, and various foreign languages, usually lasting about 3 to 4 years. Every aspect of these K-pop artists are strictly structured and finely tuned, including their dance styles, fashion, physique, and demeanor.

Their identities as K-pop artists are also highly linked to the nation, as these culture industries are closely connected to the South Korean government. Recognizing the popularity of the Korean Wave, the Korean government has seized this wave of culture as a tool to exert a “soft” power of influence on a regional and global scale. Through subsidies, the government has helped support these industries and in return, K-pop artists have appeared in several state-sponsored concerts, national propaganda videos, and tourism advertisements. With this in mind, K-pop becomes a serious business that is not just concerned with money, but also cultural power. These attempts to break into the US market were strategically constructed and planned with multiple years of investment in English training and choreography (and apparently the belief that the US market required English, a random rapper, and desired only songs about “Girls” and “Boys”).

If we are to take his word, Psy, on the other hand, seems to have accomplished by accident what government funding and years of intense physical, vocal, and language training could not: enter mainstream US pop culture…with a song in mostly Korean too! Although the song is catchy, I would argue K-pop has been producing music for years that annoyingly stays in your head—as we all know, it is the outrageous video and dance that accompanies the music that made “Gangnam Style” become a worldwide hit.

Psy’s arrival, however, complicates the future of K-pop within the US as “Gangnam Style”—which for many has been the initial entry point into K-pop —could be seen as parody of the “serious” K-pop industry. Contrary to the young chiseled bodies and highly choreographed movements in K-pop groups like Big Bang and Super Junior, Psy’s age (34), round-shaped body, and “cheesy” (yet admittedly mesmerizing and somehow “cool”) dance moves potentially destabilize how US audiences read other K-pop videos, including ideologies about Korean/Asian (American) identities.

The opening scene of Big Bang's "Fantastic Baby."

If we are to move to Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby,” how are we suppose to read this video if our only K-pop context is “Gangnam Style?” Is this suppose to be funny? Still, I think audiences are smart enough to recognize Psy’s humor in the long run. While “Gangnam Style” initially runs the risk of mocking K-pop and South Korea and becoming the new Macarena, it may be worth the risk, as Psy has (temporarily) increased the visibility of the Korean Wave within the US.



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