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.