Psy and Hammer

Psy and MC Hammer, American Music Awards

So, what does Psy‘s appearance with MC Hammer and the 2012 American Music Awards mean?

On one hand, it signifies a different kind of engagement than we have seen between Psy and African Americans in the United States.  While cameras have captured Psy with any and everyone, including Madonna, Justin Beiber and Jon Bon Jovi, sites like Black Kpop Fans have chronicled his appearances with African Americans, such as Kanye West, Kevin Hart and, providing somewhat of a gauge for  his engagement with black America.

This is to be expected, given the impact that African American R&B/soul and hip hop have on Hallyu (Korean wave).  Psy echoed this point in a recent interview about how the MC Hammer/Psy collaboration took place:  “Psy admits that he’s been a lifelong fan of Hammer so it wasn’t hard for him to go Hammer-time at the AMAs. He tells CNN, ‘Honestly, I practiced his move[s] 20 years ago, so I’ve done that for 20 years.’  So, his appearance with MC Hammer at the AMAs functioned as a moment where nostalgia meets the present, both for the audience and for Psy himself.

The joint appearance also strikes me as a profoundly mainstream American cultural moment.  Psy has been popping up all over the place, as has the dance for Gangnam Style. Some may take issue with MC Hammer’s assertions about the ultimate impact of Psy:   “He’s shifted the planet. He’s got the whole world dancing. And it’s a rarity in this world. Only four people made that happen in history — James Brown, Michael Jackson, yours truly and Psy.”  However, he has achieved a certain level of global recognition. Whether this paves the way for other K-pop acts remains to be seen.  My point, though, is that Psy is resonating with a mainstream sensibility.  This collaboration was something that many could identify with. Who doesn’t remember Hammer pants?

At the same time, however, some may be wondering where are Psy’s appearances in venues where he would engage less high-profile black celebrities and have more conversations about the impact of black culture on K-pop.  Maybe that’s asking too much, which is why I may have to be content with seeing Psy’s journey in America as the mainstream cultural moment that it is, as opposed to the cross-cultural moment it could be.

By now, your long-suffering K-pop fan in the United States may be fervently wishing for this moment to pass, but is grateful for the exposure of K-pop to a larger audience.  But with that exposure comes a different kind of response, one less positive and more revealing of the multiple cultural forces at play in Psy’s popularity.    While the audience reveled in this Afro-Asian moment at the AMAs, others were sending racist tweets, insisting that the American Music Awards had no place for a Korean pop star. None. Not at all. I can’t even quote them because they are so heinous, but you can see them at Public Shaming (scroll down).   What is interesting about the tweets is that they focus on Psy’s “foreigness,” even as he is performing with one of the most recognizable icons of American pop music.

As I suggested with my previous piece on Psy, his engagement with American culture is with ALL of American culture:  that part that has its arms wide open because it has a cosmopolitan sensibility, and that part that don’t want any part of anything it deems “foreign.”    As Psy continues his journey, I would like to see him step outside of the mainstream and talk to some other kinds of folk.  Seeing him with MC Hammer may give others the idea that Psy represents much more than the latest trend.

Image: Medley Mag


AMusicAwards. “Psy (With Special Guest MC Hammer) – Gangnam Style (Live 2012 American Music Awards), YouTube

Terri Schwartz, “Psy and M.C. Hammer: The Story Behind the Epic American Music Awards Mash-up,” Zap2it

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What Does Gangnam Style Mean For (The) US?

Album Cover, Psy’s Best Sixth (2012)

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.


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.

Image: allkpop


‘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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