While we can all agree that hip-hop has had an impact on K-pop, we don’t all agree on what that impact is. Some writers tend to define hip-hop solely in terms of oppression and discrimination experienced by African Americans. This reduces the complexity of the experiences of African Americans, distorts the genre of hip-hop, and potentially simplifies any analysis of K-pop and hip-hop.
As we begin to close out the year, Psy‘s Gangnam Style appears on many top-ten lists and retrospectives. However, what has Psy’s popularity, or more specifically, media coverage of his viral hit, done for K-pop? While a global hit, Gangnam Style may not be good for K-pop.
This post does not ignore the measurable ways that Gangnam Style‘s popularity can be measured. It continues to garner views on YouTube. Psy horsey-danced his way all the way to the White House in the United States. SPIN lists Gangnam Style as one of the top songs of the year: “”K-pop gets its first ‘U Can’t Touch This’-caliber wedding song; a billion unimaginative bros get an easy Halloween costume; YouTube gets its blessedly Bieber-free new pinnacle, our nation’s various comedians (be they sketching, improvising, monologuing) get a cheap laugh; horses get, y’know, publicity.” Psy’s success provided the opportunity for mainstream American music critics to engage K-pop, and in doing so, they describe a form a K-pop that may not be recognizable to the average K-pop fan. At Billboard, Jeff Benjamin and Jessica Oak listed the best K-pop Songs of 2012. The story included Psy and tried to provide some context for Psy within K-pop. At least they acknowledged that there is more to K-pop than Psy.
However, such assessments continue to misrepresent Psy because it does not take into account the perspective of the established global K-pop fandom. He’s not new to everybody. David Bevan points to how Psy differs from other K-pop groups: “But the premium placed on pretty faces during the ‘idol’ recruiting process and chiseled bodies in the highly streamlined, military-like training systems of most major entertainment companies hasn’t yet translated to mainstream success in the United States as many hoped and forecasted.” He drives home his point by referring to the promotions of Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD), a group from rival SM Entertainment: “Despite sold-out performances on both coasts, a Snoop Dogg cosign, and appearances on both Letterman and LIVE! with Kelly Ripa S.M. Entertainment’s marquee, high-gloss, nine-member girl group, Girls’ Generation, didn’t make any major commercial or cultural inroads.”
Not only is the distinction a misleading one (YG Entertainment, which represents Psy, also uses the training system to produce idols), defining success solely in terms of Psy’s impact on mainstream America overlooks what Psy means for community from which he rose: K-pop fandom. Many K-pop fans see Psy as a representative of YGE. The omission of other YG artists in Psy’s narrative always struck me as odd. In the K-pop world, many fans gravitate toward artists as well as the agencies that represent them. Seoulbeats notes: “Recently, major companies in Kpop have been following the footsteps of SM by launching their own family brand, nicknamed JYP Nation and United Cube. This is the chance for these big names to trot out their entire stable of artists for show, showing a united front for fans and the media.”
However, the coverage of Psy in the United States focused squarely on Psy, even as his younger siblings BigBang and 2NE1 were touring in the United States. In this way, artists also act as ambassadors for their labels.However, most people who were grooving to Gangnam Style did not know that Psy was “related” to Big Bang. Even Bevan acknowledges, “Both veteran boyband Bigbang (featuring G-Dragon, whose fabulous single “Crayon” never caught on here) and the will.i.am-assisted 2NE1 drew equally impressive crowds at arena shows in Southern California and the Tri-State area, but have yet to enter the mainstream vernacular in the same way as their doughier labelmate.”
In fact, many K-pop fans wearied quickly with Gangnam Style. Promi Ferdousi writes: “For those who have followed the rise of K-pop, from when it began in the early Nineties to its peak commercial success now, ‘Gangnam Style’ seems boring by comparison. . . .We all know succeeding in America for Koreans is a mark of achievement, but because Psy is not a characteristically K-pop star, fans humour his accomplishment while preferring other, more authentic K-pop artists. ‘Gangnam Style’ was supposed to be joke and that is how majority of real K-pop fans (including me) view it.”
Others worry that Psy misrepresents the K-pop they know and love. In an allkpop forum, one person stated: “I don’t bash him, but i am afraid all people will think that kpop is about talking about hot girls in (insert city here), and then doing ridiculous dances. People don’t like Gangnam style because they think it is a good song, they like it because it is funny/entertaining. I can also see people saying that kpop should start being like Gangnam style, and then kpop will get so much unnecessary hate.” In a different forum, another person said: “Personally, I’m indifferent toward him and his success. I’ve been a fan of K-pop nearly 5 years now and truthfully, I’ve never really recognized Psy or his music and even now, he doesn’t seem to make an impression on me.”
Another thing that may make K-pop fans cringe about Psy’s fame is the threat of English encroaching on contemporary K-pop. K-pop fans like Korean in their K-pop songs, but Psy’s success brings up American mainstream pop’s resistance to foreign language. Sam Lansky writes: “Americans who have grown tired of singing along to PSY‘s “Gangnam Style” in gibberish imitation Korean are in luck: The K-pop crossover sensation says he plans to release his next single in English as early as November.” If mainstreaming K-pop means groups singing in English all the time, K-pop fans may not be happy. When SNSD released The Boys in English, more than a few K-pop fans expressed disappointment, and some, like Mithun Divakaran , end up listening to the Korean version: “As for how it sounds in English — I’m indifferent. . . . I didn’t understand some of the words at first listen but you can still get the gist of what they are saying. But even as I write this, I’m still listening to the Korean version more.”
If other niche music markets are any indication, K-pop fans have reason to worry. Jennifer Lena, author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, describes how niche fans react when their music goes mainstream:
After the initial thrill of attention, their original fan base tends to become disenchanted, and instead of engaging with the new music, they’re apt to spend their time celebrating and preserving older music — the stuff made before the corrupting influences of the music industry arrived. That disenchanted group — whom I call “traditionalists” in the book — invest a lot of significance in being and remaining a small group. They’re historians, and what prestige they have flows from the fact that they were “there,” back “then.” They position themselves as the true fans, the core fans, and the authentic fans. And to speak to one of your other questions, they join the chorus of voices criticizing the artistic qualities of popular music.
In the end, the brightness of Psy’s star in 2012 depends on where you are standing.
“Anti-American Gangnam Style Star Also Rapped About Murdering US Soldiers and Their Families.” 7 Dec 2012. PJ Media. 22 Dec 2012.
Divakaran, Mithun. “SNSD – ‘The Boys’ album review… and about Girls Generation succeeding in America.” 20 Oct 2011. Mithun on the Net. 22 Dec 2012.
Lansky, Sam. “Psy Plans English-Language Single, Stresses About Topping ‘Gangnam Style.'” 8 Oct 2012. Idolator. 22 Dec 2012.
“SPIN’s 40 Best Songs of 2012 – #8 Psy – ‘Gangnam Style.’ 9 Dec 2012. SPIN. 22 Dec 2012.
Venkatesh, Sudhir. “Adventures in Ideas: How Music Gets Popular, Q&A with Jennifer Lena.” 17 Dec 2012. Freakonomics. 23 Dec 2012.
“Who Really Benefits from K-pop Family Concerts?” 1 Sept 2011. Seoulbeats. 22 Dec 2012.
“Why Does It Seem That Psy Is Getting Dissed More Than He Is Praised?” 12 Jul 2012. allkpop forums. 22 Dec 2012.
“Why Does Kpop Fans Are Bashing PSY?” 15 Dec 2011. allkpop forums. 22 Dec 2012.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
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
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.