Thursday, January 10, 2013

A World of PSY



Soooo, I haven't blogged for four months . . . Turns out studying in Korea is hard . . . harder than I expected, anyway, more for dealing with new surroundings than the actual school work. But such is life, eh? So it is now 2013 and the world has once again survived a horrible would-be apocalypse  good for us! Anyway, I felt that I should start blogging again, as I do quite enjoy it and have not done so in quite some time. Another thing I haven't done is make any mention of that PSY fellow or that "Gangnam Style" thing that got a few folks a little worked up back in the summer. Even though the PSY craze has died down a little (at least here in Korea), many folks seem to be pondering the question "Why PSY?" Well, here's my two cents on the matter. The following is adapted from a brief in-class paper that I had to write here in Korea. Check it out!    


Why PSY? This is a question that many people have been asking ever since "Gangnam Style" exploded on to the world stage last summer, and it has continued to be a popular subject of discussion among Koreans and North Americans alike. The first I ever heard of "Gangnam Style" was from a Korean exchange student I was tutoring in Toronto. I had known of PSY before, as his song "Champion" was the first Korean song I ever heard in my life, when I was in high school, but I wasn’t very interested in him as his songs were mostly light and not very thought-provoking (no pretentiousness intended). In the end I never really got around to checking out "Gangnam Style" until one of my Canadian friends suggested it to me.

Work it!
As the resident expert in South Korean pop culture among my friends and family, I was surprised to learn of the rapidly growing popularity of "Gangnam Style" from a Canadian friend who had little prior interest in Korea or Korean culture. He had seen it on YouTube and told me I had to see it. After watching it, I fell in love with the video, showed it to my friends and family and watched it over and over again. The video really appealed to me, as it was so absurd and had tonnes of South Korean pop-cultural references. At that point, having spent four months in Korea (before this visit to study abroad), I was able to recognize a lot of the people who appeared in the video and actually knew what Gangnam was. The funny thing is that I found the song to be not as interesting in itself, because it was very repetitive and kind of silly. Nevertheless, the video and the song had spread like wildfire among people who still thought Samsung was a Japanese brand. Why was this?

PSY holding his Guinness Book of World Records certificate for most liked video on YouTube.  
I believe that the popularity of "Gangnam Style"  and, by extension, PSY  outside South Korea can be attributed to three things: the video, the accessibility of the song, and the simplicity of the “horsey” dance that appears in the video. The video is colourful and random and contains numerous examples of physical comedy, which is the most accessible kind. The video features a pudgy, loudly dressed, not-so-young East Asian man dancing like a maniac with all manner of people, such as a cute and ultimately funny-looking dancing kid, a very slender and equally loudly dressed Yujaeseok, and of course the "sexy" Hyuna, who is also colourfully dressed and made up. Aside from these characters, the video contains explosions, horses and totally bizarre and hilarious situations and imagery. There is so much imagery that is funny simply because of its absurdity that it doesn’t matter if the audience knows these celebrities or not. They can just enjoy the ride because it’s ludicrous -- and comes with an easily accessible song.

Ohio State University marching band performing "Gangnam Style" at a football game. YouTube this if you haven't already!
When I say Gangnam style is accessible, I mean that you don’t need to understand Korean to enjoy it. The beat is strong and simple, PSY’s voice is loud and distinct and the electronic synthesizers give the song energy. These elements automatically make for a successful club anthem, but what about all those Korean lyrics? Most of the people listening to this song don’t understand Korean, so why has it become so popular? I can answer this question in three words – “Hey, sexy lady!” I imagine that for most people who saw the video for the first time, the image of PSY dancing up to a yoga group of attractive women with that ridiculous dance, singing “Heeeeeeeeeeeey, sexy lady!” probably hooked people on this video. It did for me, anyway. Not to mention that the chorus is very easy to remember and repeat. The ridiculous dance itself is also one of the appeals of "Gangnam Style."

PSY performing "Gangnam Style" at the 2012 MTV Europe Music Awards.

The “horsey dance,” as PSY himself has called it, does not require much coordination or physical ability. This means that if the song plays in a club or at a party, everyone can do the dance because it is so easy to memorize and execute. There are, of course, other steps to the dance, but as long as everyone can remember the chorus, it’s very easy. These three elements lead to a media experience that is accessible and thus appealing, which is why I believe so many watched the video on YouTube and continue to watch it today. 

But what about the future of PSY outside Korea? Will a large-scale market for Korean music in North America and Europe be generated by the success of "Gangnam Style"? Sadly, I doubt it.

Here's a club promotion from L.A.
Despite the popularity of "Gangnam Style" abroad, South Korean popular music in general is enjoyed by only a small and concentrated minority of “Westerners,” and while this number has grown in recent years it is still vastly outweighed by the majority. In my experience, average Westerners prefer music that they can understand and relate to, sung by people who look “Western” (namely, white or black), and have little interest in South Korea or its pop culture. PSY’s current popularity in the West can be attributed to the accessibility of "Gangnam Style," a result of its smart mix of elements – in other words, right stuff, right place, right time.

News illustrated's guide to dancing Gangnam style!
Sadly, I believe that PSY’s good fortune may be hard to re-create, which will result in his being a one-hit wonder Stateside, where he recently signed a recording contract. It is my feeling that differing cultures, lack of interest, and old-fashioned racism will likely ensure that PSY does not experience another phenomenon like "Gangnam Style." I could be wrong, but we’ve seen this happen before with other non-English-language songs that became very popular in primarily English-speaking countries (for example, Kyu Sakamoto's early sixties hit, titled "Sukiyaki" in the West). They arrive on the scene, they are enjoyed but not fully understood, and then they disappear into popular memory. I feel that this will be the fate of "Gangnam Style" too.             

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