By now I’m sure you’ve already come across the infamous PSY (aka. Park Jae-sang) and the Gangnam Style music video and/or one of the hundreds of flash mobs, parodies or cover videos on YouTube. He is, without a doubt, the biggest musical sensation to break into the US market from South Korea. He transcended the linguistic and cultural barrier that has prevented all of his well funded, well backed predecessors from breaking the prized US market (and the world at large).
And, he did it without even trying.
Before I continue on about how this came to be, I want to give you a bit of context regarding mainstream K-pop and its history.
“Hallyu” 2002 to 2012
In a nutshell, there has been a coordinated effort by the Korean entertainment agencies, orchestrated in large part by the Korean government, to push Korean culture overseas in order to increase exposure of South Korean culture and demand for South Korean goods; to make South Korea cool.
The first half of this strategy of the last decade was defined by Korean dramas. Though K-dramas were gaining in popularity gradually overseas, the first big hit was a romance drama called “Winter’s Sonata” that became a smash hit in Japan, especially with middle aged women in Japan. Interestingly, the drama had only limited success in South Korea, but the response in Japan increased exposure back home. Initially, K-dramas were the primary export of Korea, however, the rise of K-pop actually started around the same time. The pioneer of this movement was BOA, a K-pop solo singer that made huge inroads into the Japanese pop scene around the same time that Winter’s Sonata debuted.
This spread of South Korean content is often referred to as the Korean Wave, or “Hallyu“, as coined by the Chinese media. This strategy includes broadcasting high quality Korean content for free or at a significant discount overseas, particularly to Coastal Asia as well as financially supporting overseas efforts in other ways. This strategy worked particularly well for Coastal South East Asia, as South Korean content was significantly more advanced than locally produced content and cost almost nothing in distribution rights. Originally, this content was merely subbed or dubbed over as it was primarily meant to be consumed domestically, then exported as an afterthought. But, more and more content these days, especially from the chart topping artists, is designed to be adapted and exported to multiple markets from the outset.
Hallyu vs. Anime
This strategy was modeled after the success of a similar strategy implemented by the Japanese government in the 80’s and 90’s to popularize anime, J-pop and J-dramas. The success of the Japanese strategy is apparent almost everywhere in the world. These days, who isn’t aware of Pokemon, Sailor Moon or Hello Kitty? I have personally seen the byproduct of these efforts from rural towns in Ecuador to street markets in Beijing. But there is a big difference between Japan in the late 80’s to 90’s and Korea in the 2000’s. Japan was, in large part, a big focus of the world’s attention. Korea, even today, is much less so. This makes the success of Korea’s Hallyu strategy that much more admirable.
The problem is, Gangnam Style was not the byproduct of the Hallyu effort.
Now, one can argue that Hallyu includes all content that arises from the South Korean entertainment industry, but I don’t entirely agree. I believe there is content expressly created to appeal to international fans, and content that is expressly created for the domestic population. Obviously, there is a big grey area in between, but, you’ll at least agree that songs that debut with English and Japanese counterparts (e.g. Wonder Girl’s “Nobody”) are designed to appeal to a more international crowd than songs that focus on a very domestic topic and released in only Korean.
That’s exactly what “Gangnam Style” was.
Prior to the viral video, outside of those who have been to Korea, few people would have know what or where Gangnam is. Considering the satirical nature of the lyrics, the song itself was clearly not targeted to those outside of Korea’s cultural influence.
PSY vs. Boy/Girl Bands
He achieved what the South Korean government and entertainment agencies have been trying to do for the last decade, spending tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, by accident. That is, to break into the prized American market. But, more importantly, he is a “talent” (Konglish word for entertainment industry celebrity) that is, by definition, almost the complete opposite of what the K-pop industry has been trying to nurture.
If you look at the methods used by the major labels in Korea, there is a fairly uniform pattern. Identify beautiful, talented singer/dancers at a young age, recruit them and train them for years, match them up with other candidates, maintain a pristine image, invest in catchy choreography, provide the lyrics, sprinkle with beautiful effects, dress them up in costumes and sing about one of many generic topics such as high school/university love, romantic revenge, night life, etc. I’m not saying this is the only method employed, because there are notable exceptions to this, but it is a popular strategy that has led to the creation of a large number of the currently chart-topping boy/girl groups. South Korea is not alone, as similar strategies are employed around the world, ranging from the Mickey Mouse Club in the US to AKB48 in Japan.
Now let’s examine PSY.
He’s Short And Chubby
In the Korean entertainment industry, where girls can be highly criticized for having slightly muscular legs, or weighing more then 105 pounds, and guys are looked down upon for being less than 165cm tall, PSY is overweight and short, even by typical Korean standards.
PSY Is Not Smoking Hot
Koreans put a heavy emphasis on aesthetic beauty, perhaps more so than any society in the world. PSY, though a good looking man by normal standards, clearly does not sell his sexiness.
He’s A Troublemaker
He dropped out of university. He was caught and fined for smoking marijuana in Korea (which is a huge taboo that is perceptually comparable to someone being caught with Heroine in the states). Many of his earlier songs were banned for minors in Korea for carrying controversial lyrics. And he was called out for cheating his compulsory military service and was forced to serve again.
He Doesn’t Have Sex Appeal
In an age when many K-pop singers are contractually forbidden from dating to maintain the appeal of being single and available, he’s married and has two kids. He’s also old. By K-pop standards, he’s Madonna old.
He Has A Lot Of Creative Control
He writes his lyrics, directs and choreographs many of his dance moves. This is in contrast to many boy/girl groups that have little creative control and are merely expected to execute their roles to perfection, at least, early on in their career.
He Doesn’t Glorify Luxury, He Criticizes It
A lot of K-pop videos go the route of modern rap videos: flashy cars, ostentatious displays of wealth, night-life setting, and a heavy emphasis on the sexual appeal of the singer(s). “Gangnam Style” on the other hand, is a satire of the capital of consumerist culture in South Korea, Gangnam. For those that have not been to Gangnam, it is the financial, commercial, cultural and fashion hub of South Korea. Plastic surgery ads are plastered everywhere and it is the key district where most the top night clubs and most of the big brand HQs and stores are situated.
In many ways, PSY represents that opposite of what the K-pop industry has been trying to sell overseas.
And that’s exactly why he succeeded where every one of his predecessors failed.
East vs. West
What appeals in Asia does not necessarily appeal in the West. The most glaring example of this is the East Asian definition of beauty and sex appeal vs. the Western definition.
East Asians generally prefer skinny, fair-toned male and female singers, often dressed up in exaggerated costumes. In the case of men, the definition of “handsome” is very effeminate by American standards. They are also much less pronounced with their facial expressions, instead relying more on dance, context and effects.
This is in many ways incompatible with the Western view of beauty. Westerners generally prefer more tanned, muscular or rugged men and curvy women. There is also a greater emphasis on the features of the body vs. the costume and their is more emphasis on relaying information through facial expressions.
There is also the matter of filming style. K-pop videos are often extremely fast paced, laced with many elements of randomness (with regard to costumes, colors and scenes). PSY’s video style is actually a lot closer to American music videos with longer pans and a more linear and followable story.
East Asian Sex Appeal
With regard to selling sex appeal, there are major cultural and stylistic differences that cannot be reconciled. Additionally, a non-native English speaker would have incredible difficulty selling on vocals. Lastly, boy/girl pop bands generally don’t make it very far in the US…at least, not for the last decade (with the notable exception of the Pussy Cat Dolls).
In short, Wonder Girls was doomed to fail in the US. Super Junior and DBSK will never make it because they just don’t fit the profile of masculine sexuality in America. Similarly, BOA and Utada Hikaru, with their relatively weak English vocals and lack of mainstream sex appeal, never really had a chance either. (However, 2NE1 may indeed have a chance at some level of success, especially following the success of PSY)
PSY’s Real Predecessors
In reality, PSY’s predecessors weren’t other K-pop singers, PSY’s predecessors were Jackie Chan , Bobby Lee, John Cho, William Hung, Masi Oka, Dr. Ken Jeong and….Happa-tai.
For those of you unaware of Happa-tai, they were a Japanese group of comedians that made a viral music video called “Yatta!” in 2001.
Their ridiculously awkward video was a comedic satire of Japanese stereotypes. The peak of their US market penetration was when they were invited to the Jimmy Kimmel Show.
East Asian Goofiness
East Asian sexiness doesn’t sell, but East Asian goofiness does. One need only look at the success of Japanese game shows to see the first real mainstream acceptance of East Asian content on US cable. Anime doesn’t count, since it doesn’t actually show live Asians.
There are many other examples of this.
If you look at the roles played by Jackie Chan in China vs. the US, you’ll see a stark contrast in genres. In China, Jackie Chan has played many serious roles, but in the Hollywood, he’s basically typecast as the goofy kung fu artist.
Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un, leaders of one of the most oppressive totalitarian regimes in the world, are basically portrayed as hilariously incompetent chubby dictators.
If you look back at all the films and TV shows that Asians have starred in over the last few years, a great many of them star goofy or comical roles. Very few (especially for male roles, with the notable exception of Joon Ji-hoon aka “Rain” from “Ninja Assassin” and “Speed Racer”) sell Asian sex appeal.
Currently, East Asians are primarily typecast as one of the following:
1. Goofy Guy
2. Martial Artist
3. Helpless Beauty
4. Smart/Wise Mentor
5. The Nerd
And that’s pretty much it.
Now, this is sure to change over time, but this is the reality of the situation at the moment.
Clearly, the mere fact that PSY is goofy can’t explain “Gangnam Style”‘s success. The video is genuinely funny. The dance is hilarious, easily learned and recognized. YG (the record label) has extensive experience distributing their content globally and online and exploited those connections and experiences beautifully. The lyrics are catchy, with enough English one-liners for anyone to be able to sing along at the key moments. Lastly, YG and PSY made the ingenious (though not unprecedented) move to not restrict the usage of the music video. This explains the incredible number of parodies made within a matter of weeks that surely played a large role in ensuring its virality on YouTube.
The Future Of K-pop
America just isn’t ready for mainstream East Asian sexiness…yet. This is slowly changing, which can be seen by the recent successes of Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe and Jung Ji-hoon (aka. Rain), but Americans are far from comfortable with mainstream K-pop (and it may never be).
However, if South Korean agencies recognize this reality, we may very well see a new generation of goofy singers and perhaps, a more open mind to those artists that are closer to the fringe.
A change I would welcome with open arms.