INVESTIGATING THE “GANGNAM STYLE” PHENOMENON: GLOBAL EUROCENTRISM, ASIAN MASCULINITY, AND PSY

 

Intro

As I reread my thesis nearly four years after I had completed it for my graduate degree, the content already feels incredibly outdated. Today – particularly in many parts of Asia – popular culture and trends change rapidly with the accelerating rate of technological developments and new ways of sharing information with people around the world. New social media technologies allow content to travel across the globe almost instantaneously. Increasingly user-friendly mobile software enable everyday people to create their own trends with just a few taps of their fingers. A notable change from when Americans were galloping to “Gangnam Style” is that now we have an influx of “memes,” as opposed to the lengthy “parodies” that comics on TV or artists on YouTube took the time to create. Anyone could easily create or edit a three-second video loop called a GIF to express her response to a full-length moving image.

Given this state of greater shareability, a lot has come and gone over the last four years. If Psy once gave to the monolithic pop entertainment factories in Korea a glimmer of hope toward “breaking” the U.S. market, that glimmer disappeared as quickly as the next fad swept over the insatiable masses. Even as I was adding the finishing touches to my thesis at around April of 2013, Psy had come out with a follow-up song to ride the hype from “Gangnam Style” that already seemed to flop. Psy’s moment was over: not even Snoop Dogg’s high-profile appearance in the second video could stall Psy’s devastating fall from everything to nothing. Psy’s momentary fame was an accident. “Gangnam Style” did not open doors; it merely opened one door for Psy then slammed it in his face after a quick peak.

Since Psy’s “disappearance,” the K-pop industry has turned to China and other parts of Asia, where K-pop and K-dramas had already gained immense popularity. While many Korean entertainment corporations previously had included one or more English-speaking members in their idol groups in the slim hopes of entering the U.S. market, after “Gangnam Style,” these companies began to plant one or two non-Korean Asian members in their groups. These major companies used to hold auditions at American and some Asian cities mostly for promotional purposes, only once in a while picking up a New Jersey-born Korean American or a California native. However, now, many popular K-pop idol groups include a member or two from China, Taiwan, or Thailand, who speak fluent Korean, or a Korean member or two who speak(s) Chinese. Investing in China and other nearby nations is a worthier and surer investment; for the last few years, Korea and even the Koreatowns around the world have become pilgrimage spots for Chinese and other Asian tourists.

What has not changed is the basic premise of my theory: that the spectres of Asian de-masculinity – and indeed, racist perceptions of Asians in general – enabled Psy’s brief entrance into the U.S. and continues to bar new entrants to the U.S. entertainment market. Some brave and wealthy Korean companies have tried to push a few of their individual stars through high-profile collaborations and market tactics. For example, CL, of YG Entertainment’s now-dissolved group 2NE1, filmed a music video with an appearance by the legendary rapper Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan. The endeavor attracted some mild attention from the Korean and Korean ethnic communities outside of Korea, but largely failed to create any significant waves. In another example, T.O.P., also a member of a group from YG, stuck his foot into the prestigious New York City art auction scene by “curating” an auction night, but that effort for attention also was mostly ignored.

If anything, the climate for Asian Americans in the American entertainment industry appears bleaker than ever. Hollywood films continue to whitewash their products by placing white actors in Asian characters’ roles (for example, Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, originally a Japanese anime with Japanese characters) or by starring a white character as the main hero in a film with an Asian backdrop (for example, Matt Damon in The Great Wall). Further, the year 2017 saw a new American administration seize power based on a campaign of hateful xenophobia, and spawn a surge of hate crimes against non-white individuals. It is yet unclear whether, or to what degree, the new climate of hate will change the landscape of American entertainment for Asian talents in the coming years.

My thesis, written in 2013, was only the beginning of a study on the unflattering treatment of Asians – and in particular, Asian men – in the brutal world of American entertainment. Now four years later, with a bit of sickness in my stomach (and even some bitter nostalgia), I reread my angry criticism of Psy and American racism and present it to you. I hope that this old study on an ancient phenomenon resonates bells within people who want a different and better world. I am grateful for editor Lee Nayun for giving me the opportunity to ring bells within Korean readers too: we all need inspiration for change in these tumultuous times.

 

2017.02.06

Candy Koh

 

Chapter 1.

For decades, South Korea has attempted, and largely failed, to break through the Western (specifically American) music market. The country's popular culture, however, has gained enormous popularity in Asia, starting in the late 1990s and with increasing momentum after 2002, when NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) aired the soap opera Winter Sonata in Japan.[1] The sweeping popularity of Korean pop music and television shows has earned the term hallyu, or Korean Wave; audiences throughout East and Southeast Asia know Korean celebrities by name, and Korean entertainment powerhouses gear many of their marketing tactics toward this expanded fan base.[2] Television programs from game and talk shows to soap operas and popular music groups (called "idols") constitute a significant portion of the country's export income. According to the hallyu expert Cho Younghan, "the gross revenue from exported television programs skyrocketed from $13 million in 2000 to more than $100 million in 2005.”[3]

 

Success in Asian markets has led major South Korean entertainment companies to look to the West, which was introduced as the ideal model of modernization and progress in the early 1900s, when it began to enter Korea through Japan. Korean companies’ marketing strategies have been fairly consistent regardless of the target audience: they put forth their strongest music groups, as defined by highly positive domestic and Asian reception, physical attractiveness, and talent. Just as the companies have put forth Japanese or Chinese versions of the groups’ original Korean albums, they generally establish relationships with major American producers and/or record companies for their English albums, as exemplified recently by those of (some forthcoming) 2NE1 and Big Bang (YG Entertainment), Girl's Generation (SM Entertainment), and The Wonder Girls (JYP Entertainment).[4]

Many of these artists have been young, beautiful, talented, proficient in English, and considered exemplary models of success for the Asian market; none has ever received a fraction of the attention that they still receive closer to home. The protagonist role given to Rain (a superstar solo act, whose status and recognition throughout the past decade in Asia may be likened to that of Michael Jackson in his high days) in Hollywood’s Ninja Assassin (2009) is the closest that any Korean music celebrity has approached to gaining visibility in the Western mainstream. However, the film—written and directed by white men[5]—called for a Japanese martial arts character, and completely flopped at the box office, ranking number six during the opening weekend with a total domestic gross of 34.9%.[6]

An avid follower of such criteria, YG had no plans to promote Psy, a.k.a. Park Jae Sang (born on December 31, 1977), as their exemplary product for the Western market, or outside of the country at all. Psy simple doesn’t fit the profile: he is not considered cookie-cutter handsome in comparison to other Korean pop figures, and his act largely depends on humor and wit. It is true that, prior to the global hit of “Gangnam Style,” he had been widely popular in the Korean domestic market since his 2001 debut album, PSY from the Psycho World!. Most, if not all, young people knew the words and dance to his first single, Bird, as soon as it was released. His incredible devotion to the stage has earned him national reputation as the king of concerts.[7] Because he doesn’t have a specific target audience like the pretty boy or girl bands, and much of his act lies in his witty lyrics, he is one of the few pop artists in Korea who appeals across genders and generations. He is perhaps the only male performer as fanatically welcomed as young girl groups on the military bases teeming with young men fulfilling their compulsory services.[8] The song, “Champion,” from his third album 3Mai (2002), is still widely cherished as a male anthem and a karaoke favorite.

Though Psy remains a comical figure (his major singles are usually accompanied by a humorous dance, which his fans quickly learn and imitate), he has never been merely a clown. His second album, Ssa2 (2002), was banned for explicit content. After a U.S. tank fatally ran over two Korean girls in 2004, he publicly condemned the American military occupation in Korea through a song he titled “To My Beloved America”:

The motherfuckers who tortured Iraqi prisoners

And the motherfuckers who gave orders to torture

And their daughters, their mothers, their daughters-in-law, and others

Kill them, kill them slowly, kill them painfully.

He actively participated in ensuing protests around the nation and performed the song, which has resurfaced recently in American media as a criticism against Psy.[9]

Given his unstable reputation and silly persona, Psy’s record label did not consider him an ideal candidate for an overseas market. Additionally, a common national sentiment equates any product which ventures outside of the domestic sphere with an inevitable representation of the country; many Koreans would consider Psy’s fairly ordinary face and silly slapstick performances a less than flattering model of Korea to show the rest of the world.[10] When an Australian media show host asked him during an interview, “I guess in Korea, they’re celebrating you. [...] Is it something, you know, you’re taking Korea to the rest of the world as well? A pioneer as such?” Psy responded, “I’m so worried about... not all Koreans look like me. Most of them are... handsome [laughs].”[11] Psy explains in SBS’s Healing Camp that he received interest from his first recording company in Korea purely based on the merit of an album he had uploaded on the internet while still attending school at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, not long before his debut. When Psy flew into Korea for his meeting with the company, the CEO was supposedly shocked to see how unattractive the artist was. The company spent a length of time deliberating how or whether they could market him and “what to do with his face.”[12] The company finally decided not to package him as a serious rapper, but a witty jokester, coming up with the name “Psy,” short for “psycho.”[13] Its gamble yielded unimagined success: Psy’s career took off immediately. Yet, YG kept him within the domestic sphere.

No wonder then, that the unimaginable popularity of Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” a single from his sixth album, surprised everyone. Kyu Lee—seasoned Hollywood producer and liaison between Korean and American pop industries—has declared that “something like this will probably not happen for another hundred years.”[14] Psy created the music video in collaboration with dance choreographer Lee Joo Sun and video director Cho Soo Hyun. It was first uploaded on YouTube, on July 15th, 2012, to promote the single for Psy’s domestic fans, but quickly spread beyond Korea. After just three months, “Gangnam Style” made it to The Guinness World Records as the most liked video in the history of YouTube. It received over two million “likes” as of September 20th, 2012, surpassing LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”[15] By December 1st, 2012, the video broke the YouTube record of 803 million views; when it reached the one billion mark on December 21st, 2012 (a rate of 76.4 views per second), the U.S. Billboard declared the video’s number of views an “unprecedented Koreans before American military audiences in their own country during the process of modernization in the 1930s to 1950s. The humor in Psy’s video—the use of parody, irony, and absurdity—functions on a variety of visual mechanisms, which cater to pre- existing American formulations of the Asian comic while also moving beyond this rigidly stereotyped image. The video creates a festive sense of fluid inclusiveness, which does not discriminate based on conventional societal partitions. This aspect of “Gangnam Style” has enabled Psy to establish a level of familiarity with American viewers, so that he does not simply remain a strange laughing stock. Psy's video, in an attempt to create a carnival-esque collective humor, presents possibilities of disobeying a system that heavily bars entry to those who do not conform to its agendas (Eurocentric and Occidentalist).

 

(to be continued)

 

Candy Koh is a writer, artist, translator, and activist based in New York City. She studied sculpture and literature as an undergraduate and later received an M.F.A. in Art Criticism and Writing. Currently, she is also enrolled in law school and likes to tell her classmates that she plans to become a lawyer in order to do performance art in the courtroom.

 

 

 

[1] Younghan Cho, “Desperately Seeking East Asia amidst the Popularity of South Korean Pop Culture in Asia,” Cultural Studies 25, no. 3 (March 2011): 383-384

[2] In television, the major broadcasting companies that are responsible for many of South Korean exports are SBS, MBC, and KBS. The popular music industry is likewise heavily dominated by three major companies: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment.

[3] Cho, 385.

[4] 2NE1’s work with The Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am since 2010 has been well documented on the group’s reality show, 2NE1 TV, on Mnet, a music channel on Korean cable television; Big Bang’s Taeyang has worked with producer Harvey Mason Jr., who has worked with artists such as Britney Spears and Chris Brown; Girl’s Generation has signed with Interscope Records and already has started to air its songs on American radio as of 2012, appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman on February 1st, 2012; Wonder Girls is signed with both the Jonas Group and Hollywood’s Creative Art Agency, and has also already released the single “The DJ is Mine.”

[5] The film was directed by James McTeigue and written by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski. IMBd, “Full cast and crew for Ninja Assassin,” IMBd,

[6] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1186367/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_wr#writers (accessed March 22, 2013).

[7] According to the vast number of people I have spoken to over the years since his debut, individuals ranging from their teens to their 40s, in varying degrees of fandom (from none to extreme interest in his music), have consistently informed me that the tickets have been worth every penny.

[8] Healing Camp.

[9] Max Fisher, “Gangnam Nationalism: Why Psy’s anti-American rap shouldn’t surprise you,” The Washington Post, December 7, 2012, under “World Views,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2012/12/07/gangnam-nationalism-why- psys-anti-american-rap-shouldnt-surprise-you/ (accessed March 21, 2013).

[10] One almost comically absurd attack on Psy’s Koreanness is this article by Oh Young-jin. The author writes:

[...] Psy’s problem and, by extension, that of “Gangnam Style,” is that his whole gig is built on a falsehood ― there are few elements about him and his song that can be regarded as Korean.

For instance, the horse-riding dance is one of the most popular elements in his song that has little to do with Korea. We Koreans are not a seriously equestrian people, traditionally speaking, and the horse-riding population may be increasing nowadays but is not yet a popular sport.

With the horse-riding being so stressed in his song, I fear that people may think Koreans are descendants of Genghis Khan, whose solders roamed on horseback throughout the world on their expedition to conquer the world.

[...] The start of Psy’s music video reinforces doubts about whether “Gangnam Style” represents Korean styles in any way.

Young-jin Oh, “Coming Out on Psy,” The Korea Times, October 2, 2012, under “Opinion,” http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/special/2012/10/385_121306.html (accessed March 21, 2013).

[11] Psy, interview with Adene Cassidy, “Psy’s Got Gangnam Style,” Today Tonight, Channel Seven, Australia, October 16, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EmZ8aZSYtE (accessed December 12, 2012).

[12] According to Psy, someone at the company even proposed he wear a mask during all his media appearances. Healing Camp.

[13] South Korea pop artists have very little flexibility when they sign with one of the major three entertainment companies. If a company decides to package an entertainer according to a particular image, he/she usually must accept it to maintain the contract. If some gain significant popularity and recognition over the years, they may be able to begin negotiating with the companies on their own terms, but the cases are rare and the opportunity may never arrive even after a decade or longer of having a career. Healing Camp.

[14] Kyu Lee, phone interview by author, February 6, 2013.

[15] Guiness World Records, “’Gangnam Style’ Holds Guinness World Record for Most ‘Liked’ Video in YouTube History,” Guinness World Records, September 20, 2012, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2012/9/gangnam-style-now-most-liked-video-in- youtube-history-44977/ (accessed March 22, 2013).

고캔디

고캔디는 뉴욕에 거주하는 글작가, 그림작가, 번역가 및 활동가다. 학부에서 조각과 문학을 공부했고, 미술 비평과 글쓰기로 석사 학위를 받았다.

Candy Koh

Candy Koh is a writer, artist, translator, and activist based in New York City. She studied sculpture and literature as an undergraduate and later received an M.F.A. in Art Criticism and Writing.

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