Tag Archives: Korea

Why Psy Made it Across the Pacific…my take

I’m sure that far too many articles have been written about PSY and his American success, but during a walk this weekend a thought occurred to me that I hadn’t read elsewhere, so I held out hope that it was somehow original. For anyone who might read this, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts.

For the past couple years, Korean music producers have been bending over backwards to get K-Pop across the Pacific and in the American market. The big successes were Girls’ Generation on Letterman and Akon singing with the Wonder Girls. Then Psy’s manic media whirlwind put those modest gains in perspective as merely scratching the surface. So, what’s the difference?

Here’s my idea: Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video is ultra-Korean. If you haven’t spent much time in Korea, how could you possibly make sense of the ajumma noraebang (old women karaokae) bus, or the jopo/gangpae mokyoktang (gangster sauna). Even the tennis hagwon with the students’ immaculate outfits is rather typically Korean. On the other hand, those K-Pop groups that tried to go abroad wiped themselves clean of all their Koreaness. They tried to boil their product down to a non-national, super-cultural modernity that had little to do with their own lives and experiences or anyone else’s for that matter.

Here’s the strange thing. While all the cultural references that pervade Psy’s video are obviously lost on all its American/Canadian/British viewers, the vibrancy and context is not. While the landscape of Gangnam Style has a sort of “Alice in Wonderland” quality, it is a world of new experiences, full of a recognizable humor, irony, and humility. Meanwhile, Wonder Girls’ space-girl outfits in a silver room with silver walls point to absolutely nothing at all. Context, whether understood or not, is the stuff that humans respond to. We’re willing to accept a context that we don’t know the same way we embrace Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and the Matrix. On the other hand, the non-world that K-Pop tried to sell in the US appealed to only the inane and mindless.

In the future, if Koreans want to sell their product abroad, Psy has set a course clear. Don’t run from confusion, or your language, or the stuff of your everyday reality. The rest of the world already has its own cliches; we don’t need them re-hashed for us.

The Power of an Interpretation

Two days ago, I finished B.R. Myers’ book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves & Why It Matters. Myers is a professor at Dongseo University in Busan and has obtained a sort of minor, local celebrity among foreigners in Busan as a fluent Korean speaker/full-fledged university professor who appears on major media outlets like this Al-Jazeera interview. In the end, I had mixed feelings about the book, but the basic thesis is quite intriguing and goes something like this: Continue reading

The Developing Coast of Busan

This past weekend I hiked out over 오륙도, the Five Sisters, five large rocks that reach out into Korea’s South Sea. If you’ve been to Haeundae (해운대) Beach, Taejongdae (태종대) Park, or the Nurimaru APEC House, you’ve likely seen the islands, as well as the passenger boat that ferries tourists to get an up-close look at the islands. Since arriving in Busan in 2007, I’ve wanted to get to the Five Sisters, but it’s never been possible.

Hence this post. Continue reading