I remember in the summer of 2012, I was sitting in the car with my family and listening to Hot99.5. The radio was playing whatever songs were current at that time, and I was only half listening since the songs seemed to be on repeat over and over again. However, that day, I happened to hear something different on the radio: Psy’s Gangnam Style. It was the first time I had ever heard K-pop being played on an American music station, and it was the only time I have heard K-pop on the radio since.
Psy’s Gangnam Style was received favorably in the United States. After its release, the popularity of the song continued to spread all over America. It was constantly played on the radio stations, people continuously watched the music video on YouTube, and many even went to Psy’s live performances in the US. What was so interesting about this phenomenon was that K-pop was not a new thing. It had been established way early on, and yet, Psy was really the first (in my opinion) to break out into the American music industry and become well known among a population that did not just consist of Asians. By staying true to his own style and flair and not attempting to cater towards an American audience, he was able to enjoy success in breaking through the barrier of the American industry.
The basis of Psy’s song, Gangnam Style, was to poke fun at the “rich and fabulous” lifestyles of the people in the Gangnam district in Korea, a place where the trendy and hip gather. It is a place that is considered the “cultural Ground Zero” of Korea and has been seen as a point of great “cultural and fiscal power” (to learn more about Gangnam style/fashion, check out this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-hurt/gangnam-style-fashion_b_1958634.html).
In order to express his views about Gangnam, Psy’s music video featured random scenes and things such as garbage blowing everywhere, girls doing yoga, dancing in metro stations, etc. to satirize the apparently lush lifestyles of those people living in the district. The lyrics of the song also served to express this point in that he is describing himself as someone with “Gangnam style” and naming all of the apparent activities that he does as someone with that style.
Although Gangnam Style’s success was attributed to the catchy tune and infamous horse trot dance, it did not necessarily make sense how he was able to become so famous with just those two aspects since there were many K-pop songs that also featured catchy dance moves and funky beats. In my opinion, Psy’s fame and Gangnam Style’s popularity was ironic since it went against everything that other K-pop idols were trying to do to fit into American culture. Although his song was catchy and his dance was memorable just like other K-pop songs, that’s where the similarities end. Psy not only did not try to mold his own style and song into something that he perceived as American and what an American audience would accept, but he also made fun of the elegance and sophistication that many K-pop stars had try to aim for. For example, another K-pop star named Rain had released a song and video called Rainism which emphasized his masculinity and desirability as an Asian male by showing his dominance over white and black males. In Rain’s music video, he showed off his strength through his dance skills and showed his richness through extravagant outfits and scenery. However, his video was not received as favorably by an American audience as Gangnam Style was. Even looking at K-pop stars now (as shown on allkpop.com), many try to aim for that “Gangnam style”, the trendy and hip look, in an attempt to sell themselves to a wider audience, however they still cannot reach as high of an audience base as Psy was able to.
By examining Psy’s success, it becomes apparent that “Americanizing” Asian culture is not the best method to achieve fame in America. Not only does it emphasize already hyped-up stereotypes (i.e. Dragon Lady, nerdy sidekick), it also does not serve to express Asian culture in the most accurate way. Although Psy did not necessarily show off what Korean culture is, he did not try to force it into something that it is not. He did not try to play a certain character in order to present himself in some stereotypical way. Because he incorporated his own style into the song and video, he was able to present himself favorably in the American industry.