PSY And The Acceptable Asian Man

By Guest Contributor refresh_daemon, cross-posted from init_music

 The song of the hour.

So, by now, pretty much everybody who covers Korean music and a batch of mainstream international publications have had something to say about PSY’s “Gangnam Style”, which has, as of the writing of this post, had over 190 million views on YouTube, become an internet sensation, led to Psy getting airplay over the radio in some larger metropolitan cities in the US, and even got him signed to the record label that represents Justin Bieber. And while everyone I know that follows Korean music knows PSY, even my friends and peers who otherwise don’t care a thing about Korean or Asian media know about PSY and holler “Oppa Gangnam Style” along with him.

Much has been said about the viral sensation, breaking down the best moments of the video, examining whether or not this is a boon to Korean music’s attempts to break into one of the most lucrative music markets in the world, and some pieces even went deep into the actual meaning of “Gangnam Style.” And I was happy to let everyone else talk about “Gangnam Style” and its place in our world…except that I still have yet to read an article that hits one particular reason why I think “Gangnam Style” is so acceptable to Western audiences when every Korean and Japanese pop artist that tried to make it in America before has failed.

A Disclaimer:
Now, first of all, I need to say that there is no simple “one reason” why any one song succeeds or fails in any market, so even though I’m going to be focusing on a particular aspect of why I think “Gangnam Style” gained the popularity it did, it is actually just one component of many to explain why “Gangnam Style” caught on in America. Some of the obvious reasons why “Gangnam Style” is so popular are that the music is catchy and fun; there is a goofy, but relatively easy, dance attached to the song; there is a humorous music video for the song. I won’t need to explain the viral power of that.

Asian Pop Fails On American Shores
However, PSY does have the unusual position of being a phenomenon because he wasn’t trying to break into any international markets with “Gangnam Style.” It was cooked up for the home audience. On the other hand, a number of other pop artists from Asia, in particular J-Pop (Utada Hikaru) and K-Pop (Wonder Girls, Girls Generation, Rain, BoA, and PSY’s YG label-mate, Se7en) have all tried or are continuing to try to break into mainstream Western music markets with only limited success. Most of these artists have all seen a good deal of international success within Asia; certainly much more than Psy, who predominantly played to a Korean fanbase and hardly reached the level of success that his more popular label-mates, Big Bang and 2NE1, were able to reach even in Korea. So it’s a bit quizzical that it’s not the big stars of Asian pop, but PSY, a minor player, that truly made it big.

The pop stars that assailed the US made English versions of their songs, worked with American producers, got featured spots from high-profile artists, spent a nice amount of promotional money on music videos, and yet not a success story among them, only serving to cater to the niche audience that Asian media serves in the US. So, what went wrong?

 Teddy Riley produced this track. That's right, Mr. New Jack Swing himself.

Well, there are definitely some cultural differences at play here and I’m not talking about East versus West. Specifically, boy and girl bands are not especially popular in the US at the moment, outside of the niche pre-teen market, and so the tightly choreographed multi-girl units of Girls Generation and Wondergirls were fighting an uphill battle at best for any sort of mainstream popularity. So, despite the polished dance routines, hitmaker-made songs, and bevy of attractive faces, there is simply a cultural limit to the capacity of their success.

The Asian Man Who Makes It
I was speaking to a non-Asian American friend of mine who has only a mild familiarity with Asian entertainment about the success of PSY and he lamented that of all riches of cool art and pop that Asia has, it was the silliness of PSY that made it big. And that got me thinking that, yes, indeed, Asia has a lot of talented artists working in various forms of entertainment, and not a single one of them–despite being quite available to be seen, thanks to the power of social media–has ever broke the mainstream.

For example, Rain–who was at one point a gigantic pop star in Asia and frequently was voted to the top of Time’s most influential charts, beating out Stephen Colbert and, consequently, getting a huge amount of publicity from Colbert’s imagined feud between the two–never amounted to more than a place in two feature films, one of which he did manage to star in. But then like a real ninja assassin, he and his magic six-pack vanished from mainstream consciousness without a trace.

 Ninja Assassin, despite the critical panning, did manage to make a little money, but Rain still doesn't really get the girl.

But even Rain, who was definitely known more for his dancing and his music and a being a romantic heartthrob in some popular Korean dramas, ended up showing up in Western media as a martial artist, and then I realized that Rain–as well as the vast majority of Asian and Asian American men that have ever made an impact in mainstream entertainment–fit into a particular conception that the mainstream has of Asian men and, in this case, that is the butt-kicking martial artist. Despite that Rain wasn’t exactly known for being this sort of actor back in Korea, in the US, that is who he had to be in order to see the silver screen. This most recently happened again with Jay Chou, the actor/filmmaker/song-writing pop star from Taiwan, who, despite having a broad range of talent, comes to the US to follow in the footsteps of the grandfather of Asian martial artists in movies, Bruce Lee, taking up the mantle of Kato in The Green Hornet.

So, it’s clear from the limited types of roles that people of Asian descent get in mainstream media that, for an Asian person to see any success in mainstream media, he or she must fit into one of these acceptable roles. That brings us to PSY: for all his breakout success, there is a good likelihood that he fits a particular role that mainstream Western media permits for Asian men.

Send In The Clowns
You only have to look at a handful of other Asian and Asian American men that have made any impression in mainstream American music to guess what role PSY fits. Just this year, Korean American Heejun Han made it to the elusive top ten of American Idol and, while his buttery baritone did cut muster, it was his off-stage antics as a hilariously deadpan prankster that the public particularly reacted to. Before Han, the other Asian male that made any particular impact in American mainstream music was William Hung. Yeah.

That’s right: alongside clowns from other mediums like Ken Jeong (and yellow-face disgraces like Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunoishi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s), PSY fits right into the mainstream-friendly role of Asian male jester, offering goofy laughs for all and, thanks to PSY’s decidedly non-pop star looks, in a very non-threatening package. Psy doesn’t even have to sing in English or be understood because it’s not the social critique offered by the lyrics that matters to the audience, but the marriage of the funny music video, goofy dance, and a rather catchy tune, of which two of the elements are comical and, again, non-threatening.

After Psy's success, I imagine that Korean comic music duo UV is more likely to break in the US than G-Dragon.

That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with appreciating Asian comic stylings or that PSY is at all untalented. The man came up with the concept and dance for his song, as well as writing the whole thing itself and even manages to have a message in the mix. Likewise, many of these comically oriented Asian and Asian American performers are very good at what they do, so the problem isn’t with them, but rather with the racism and neo-Orientalism prevalent in the mainstream American (and Western) mindset that blinds this society from seeing and accepting the full spectrum of Asian and Asian American people.

You Keep Your Sexy Back
When you take into account the images of the acceptable roles of the Asian nerd-slash-social outcast and Asian clown that are appreciated and contrast them to the Asian male pop stars that seem to have no cachet with the Western mainstream, one of the most obvious differences is that the Asian male pop stars exude sexiness whereas the clowns and the geeks, even though they are completely able to be cool–like PSY–do not. Even the most dangerous of the Asian male stereotypes, the martial artist, is denied any notable sexuality in the movies that become mainstream popular in the West.

Bruce Lee’s most popular movie in the US is Enter the Dragon. He doesn’t get the girl. When Jet Li was still someone that people were trying to make a star in America, he starred in Romeo Must Die and, rather than Aaliyah’s romantic counterpart, he is merely a platonic friend at the end. Apparently pre-screening audiences booed the interracial kiss version which was screened. The producers must have known since they had already prepared an edit without a kiss.

Aw, even the bad boys of Big Bang can't get no love in New York.

Thus, even when the power of the Asian martial artist or the gunplay of the cop and gangster is appreciated by the white heterosexual male hegemonic power structure that rules the mainstream, the potential threat of Asian male sexuality is clearly not and, therefore, for heterosexual Asian and Asian American men to see mainstream success, it genuinely helps not only to fit one of the pre-ordained acceptable Asian male roles (nerd, martial artist, gangster, and clown), but also to avoid any positive displays of sexuality and presenting yourself in a manner that can be seen as desirable to heterosexual women.

The male vanguard of K-pop–with polished music, image, and music videos, dressed in high fashion and with hard bodies that they aren’t shy in showing off–fit none of these prescribed stereotypes and definitely exude sexiness, as well as frequently contesting the sexiness of hyper-masculinity prevalent in the West (especially North America). And the confident display of Asian male sexuality from these pop stars might simply be enough for Western audiences to find reasons in those cultural differences–whether the fashion, the style of music, or the differences in acceptable masculinity–to reject that particular image of Asians. And that might be one reason why Asian pop keeps losing its bid for a place in Western mainstream music.

Losers And Winners
The end result, however, is that everyone loses. You see, not only are Asian men stereotyped into certain roles in the public consciousness and have to conform to these roles in order to improve chances for mainstream success in entertainment, but the mainstream then denies itself access to a tremendous cache of quality works and performers of art and entertainment. PSY, for his infectious electro-hip-pop and crazy antics, is merely a tiny sliver of the Korean music scene, which stretches far outside of the best known halls of pop and into the vibrant hip-hop, avant-garde, and indie scenes, which features perhaps some of the most interesting and enjoyable music I have personally encountered.

If all you want to see from Asia are clowns, martial artists and geeks, you miss out on fantastic music like this.

However, I do think that the Western mainstream is slowly becoming more open to a broader spectrum of images of Asians and Asian Americans, such as in music represented by the success of Asian American electro-house-hip-hop foursome, Far East Movement, on the airwaves. This is a group that presents a hard-partying image with a clear appreciation for club-going women. Not to mention the rising popularity of Asian Americans in the younger social networking and social-media generation.

PSY’s sudden and surprising success means little for the success of K-pop in the West, which, aside from the dedicated niche fandom and Asian diasporic groups, faces a tremendous uphill battle, thanks to both cultural differences in pop music and a limited set of acceptable non-threatening roles that performers of Asian descent can fill. PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” for all of the many reasons why it’s successful–from the creativity inherent in the music as well as the video that accompanies it to the charismatic man himself and his polished performances–is also wildly successful in the West in some small part due to the fact that he is one of the things the Western mainstream wants to see from its Asian people: a funny guy who doesn’t pose any threat of making Asian men seem sexually desirable.

But, if anything is positive about PSY’s success for the representation of Asian diasporic images in the collective consciousness of the Western mainstream, it’s that “Gangnam Style” is clear proof that the internet, social media, and streaming video have made the world smaller and the borders more porous, so that a woman in Ottawa and a man in Jakarta both end up knowing how to do the cheesy horse dance and shouting “Oppa Gangnam Style!” And even if there are mountains to climb before we can reach a world where there are real representations of Asians in Western mainstream media, the fact is that all these genuine representations of people of Asian descent are now just a click away. And, by the power of the internet through social media–be it a tweet, a Tumblr post, a vlog on YouTube or a Facebook share–you also now have the power to share that breadth of humanity with everyone you know. Horse dance and all.

  • http://twitter.com/treelyruly stella lee

    just regarding rain … he’s completing his military service. “disappeared without a trace” doesn’t really serve that fact justice. HE’LL BE BACK!!!

  • http://twitter.com/treelyruly stella lee

    just regarding rain … he’s completing his military service. “disappeared without a trace” doesn’t really serve that fact justice. HE’LL BE BACK!!!

  • Arthen

    Wrong. Black men had nothing to do with it.
    It was just the excuse that was given.
    Their approval or lack thereof would have had no bearing on the final cut.
    The powers that be in the film industry do as they please, a prime example being their choosing to royally ignore Nina Simone’s daughter concerning the biopic of her own mother.

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  • Shirley

    I’ve been following JYJ, this three-member pop group from South Korea that is currently being banned from broadcast in their own country. They fought an unfair 13 yr. contract that denied them their royalties. The company nearly worked them to death. There is an international movement afoot to get these guys justice. The thing about it though is that they are probably one of the most talented pop groups South Korea has ever produced. I would love for them to follow Psy’s footsteps and gain popularity here in the states.They have the voices, charisma and drive to do it. Only time will tell whether three handsome, talented Korean male singers will be accepted over here and break the (stereotypical) mold. (Website: JYJ3).

  • V

    IMO, it seems like JPop is still very much a small niche market in the US. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems the only exposure the majority of these artists get is concerts at anime conventions (TM Revolution, Mell, JAM Project, AAA, L’Arc-en-Ciel have all performed at Otakon) or the Cherry Blossom Festival in DC. BoA and Hikaru Utada definitely have talent (Utada even having worked with Ne-Yo on the remix of his “Do You” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aALIENz2p1E) and appeared on CBS’ Sunday Morning (http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4900116n), and BoA did a duet with Howie D from the Backstreet Boys (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgsiVw8FayQ)), BUT even if you’ve got writers and producers with successful track records, it doesn’t automatically ensure success.

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  • Anonymous

    With respect, you could also start with Keni Styles.

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  • Coa

    I laughed, but at the same time I feel like everyone is forgetting about Japanese artist Kyu Sakamoto, who had a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with his song “Ue o Muite Aruko” (renamed “Sukiyaki” for American audiences). This was in 1963, less than two decades after the end of World War II. Where does his success fall into this? Is he a complete anomaly?

  • Coa

    All of the examples of foreign bands you’ve listed except for t.a.t.u. are British
    – Does their advantage have more to do with their whiteness, or the
    fact that they’re native English speakers? English-speaking, non-white
    artists from the Caribbean have certainly done well in the United States
    – Bob Marley, Rihanna, Sean Paul, the Baha Men? What about non-white
    European artists, like Taio Cruz (UK), Jay Sean (UK), or Samantha Mumba (Ireland)?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=700112059 Courtnee Tiggy Howell

      Except for Mr. Marley and Rihanna, all the Carribean acts you named were only hot for a limited amount of time before essentially returning to their home market. I can’t tell you how much it irks me that Jay Sean is being wasted over at Cash Money. English, Middle Eastern AND he sings R&B? I don’t know if it’s prejudice or the absence of a talented song-writer.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=700112059 Courtnee Tiggy Howell

      Except for Mr. Marley and Rihanna, all the Carribean acts you named were only hot for a limited amount of time before essentially returning to their home market. I can’t tell you how much it irks me that Jay Sean is being wasted over at Cash Money. English, Middle Eastern AND he sings R&B? I don’t know if it’s prejudice or the absence of a talented song-writer.

  • commentator

    “That brings us to PSY: for all his breakout success, there is a good
    likelihood that he fits a particular role that mainstream Western media
    permits for Asian men.”

    Let’s imagine for a moment — if Psy and Gangnam Style MV was produced in the US, by the media execs in the US…Bingo! It would NOT have been produced.

    And, imo, it does not fit the “mainstream Western media permits for Asian men.”

  • EB

    I agree that the trope of Asian male jester is pernicious, but I don’t think that Psy’s US success is due to this for many of the reasons already discussed in the comments (super catchy tune, dance/rap beat, combined with an actual dance). I also think that the fact that the video was a critique (along with what it critiqued) spread pretty rapidly in the blogosphere, and some of the parody videos reflect this.

    I have to agree with others that all the videos posted here have music that sounds very generic and 80s. I actually am exposed to a bit of K- and J-pop and I in some cases the girl and boy groups really don’t stand out from each other (plus the super groups of 8-12 women or men make it hard for individuals to stand apart from each other in some of the bands).

    Psy’s songs on the other hand gets stuck in my head, to the point that I’ve purchased the other song that he put on YouTube (Right Now http://youtu.be/LXR-dFL9BE8) even though I don’t speak Korean.

  • http://twitter.com/Cairnish Jess

    Out of all the Korean and Japanese music videos I’ve watched before Gangnam Style was released, I find Psy’s song comparable if a little more intense (well, about as intense as Super Junior and Big Bang). Most of the videos include dancing a non-professional couldn’t follow so you’re right on about the merits of viral moves. I couldn’t tell you why, more than those reasons, it caught on in the US but I was already a Kpop fan and this never struck me as a more racially-comfortable role for a Korean man. If you say that’s because I’m not racist, you’re only half right – I’m certainly not racist and personally identify with Asian culture in many ways but I’m willing to give most Americans the benefit of the doubt that they don’t love this video because it’s “non-threatening” and keeps an Asian person “in his place” as a comedian. Is it really fair to isolate the “niche fandom” and “Asian diasporic groups” from Western music? The kind of music those groups (myself included) like is certainly not separate from contributing to the success of Asian music in the US.

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  • ther

    You forget PSY is populat not only in th USA but all around the world where people have never heard all the steretypes about Asian men.

    • Anonymous

      you’re right, but he’s that popular all around the world because he got popular in the USA, and the author is talking about why he thinks it got popular in the USA in particular.

  • Heisig

    “The people that made him famous here (tumblr kids/reddit readers/facebook internet geeks) don’t have a problem with a threateningly sexy asian man.”

    I beg to differ about “reddit readers”, as in my experience, many are quite racist against Asian men. Otherwise, you bring up some worthy points.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1066800965 Danielle Bolden

    I feel as if you should re-read the article again. He really describes what is “normal” very well in the article. I suspect that you simply don’t like the implications of what he’s saying, in addition to your privilege as someone who has the advantage of possessing this type of “normality.” This article is about how Asian men are percceived in America. Don’t shoot the messenger cause you don’t like the message.

  • kim

    Great analysis. And while I think there are other factors involved with this song’s success (catchy etc.), I definitely agree with the role stereotyping is playing. Especially when I read this:

    “According to Tiger JK, hecklers in the audience insisted that he perform the “horse dance” from the choreography of Psy‘s “Gangnam Style“, and he was unable to hold back his frustration.”

    I am not a K or J pop fan in general or a US pop fan for that matter but as far as the “Asian pop is just a derivative of US pop argument”, why are so many Hollywood movies that are direct rip-offs of Asian movies so popular? Many Hollywood martial arts movies usually star white martial arts stars such as Jason Statham as heroes over Asian martial arts stars, who often play the bad guy or a sidekick.

  • Anonymous

    This article nails it so much, I almost stood up and clapped. Many people don’t want to admit a lot of this because it makes them feel uncomfortable. So you get into the tone police, the assurance that “since I don’t do it, there is no way it happens”, and stuff like that but there is an underlining current that I personally noticed from the initial explosion in popularity.

    For those who are saying “America already has this, why do we need it from somewhere else?” Isn’t that inherently what the author getting at? It’s not like American pop music is this ground-breaking musical bonanza. What is the difference between pedestrian pop produced by Americans and pedestrian pop produced by Koreans (or Japanese). Would you still prefer pedestrian pop produced by Americans vs an amazing pop song produced by Koreans or a Japanese singer? What is the difference in the end? Ask yourself that…it’s all pop, isn’t it?

  • Melon

    Agree to a point; I think your insistence on Western society repressing the sexuality of Asian men is wide of the mark, though. The kung-fu fighting guy, yes – he sometimes doesn’t get the girl. That doesn’t change the fact that his masculine, sweating, mostly shirtless self is a plain display of the ‘men want to be him, women want to be with him’ strand of blunt sexualisation.

    I put it to you that the reasons K-Pop groups haven’t made it ‘big’ in the US have more to do with ‘authenticity’ (they’re meticulously created record label products with largely anemic music), language, and sheer numbers – the latter being of particular note. Yes, lots of K-Pop stars are very talented, but for every Justin Bieber, there’s dozens like him that fail; it’s not as if the industry has a dearth of talented performers clambering for the limelight. That considered, how many J-Pop or K-Pop stars have genuinely tried to make the leap to America? For every one that succeeds, judging by Western pop standards there should be dozens that fail. Have dozens of Asian pop acts even tried to crack the US market to date?

    In addition, as a general rule the higher femininity displayed by male K-Pop groups would come across as unusual in the US – that disconnect has more to do with culture than any subversive desire of western society to sexually emasculate Asian men. South Korea accounts for a huge proportion of global male cosmetic sales, for example. Take that as a sign of a more feminine culture in general, and that level of ‘girliness’ doesn’t translate easily to more masculine cultures. Not to say they wouldn’t be seen as desirable; more that their immaculately groomed appearance would be too bland in an industry that demands at least a token ‘edge’.

    That said, I also acknowledge your point there are stereotypes that Western society seems more comfortable placing Asian men in; your succinctly outlined version of PSY’s place in one being a good example. I don’t think this has anything to do with sexual repression though. All in all, very though-provoking reading!

  • twelve

    “We are bravely going to give up our massive popularity in South Korea to promote our sugar-cute style to teenagers in America” > Not sure if ‘brave’ is the word I would use here. South Korea is hardly unique in sending the best and most successful of its pop performers to the United States to try and break into the pop market (notice – or don’t notice, because most don’t get air time – all the European music and acting exports, for instance, or big-time Bollywood actors trying to get parts). This makes sense because the US probably is one of the largest consumer markets in the world, so making it big here means not only vast fame, but also vast wealth (see Bieber for an export musician from Canada whose branded fragrance alone recently made $120 million in revenue). So: ‘brave’ is not the word I would use; ‘brave’ implies some sort of artistic integrity. I’d call it ‘opportunistic.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a very, very difficult formula to strike; you need more luck than calculation.

  • Aj

    I’d like to see more images, definately; even though in college I learned a little about the Asian stereotypes in America (every group has thiers…every group but Whites of course), I didn’t realize thier updated forms. Your piece made me see that there’s a ‘method to the madness’ of excluding a variety of images. Thanx for the clarity.

  • http://twitter.com/SaitoHawkeye DP

    Aren’t most of the K-Pop acts you mentioned incredibly boring, recycled, derivative industrial pop? I mean, we already have a billion bands like that in the US…why would we import Korea’s? There’s not much appreciation for Lebanese, Russian, Indian or most European pop music either, outside from novelty hits (Jai Ho/Dragostea din tea).

    I’d argue that PSY got popular because he offered something funny and different both from what we get in the US and the mainstream on the other side of the Pacific. Also because viral logic is inscrutable

    • Anonymous

      You have a valid point. If you look at all the popular music artists in America, they’re all solo acts. Groups went out with the 1990s, so it’s doubly hard for K-pop artists to not only break the cultural barrier but also the trend barrier.

      That being said, it’s also entirely likely that even if a musically-talented and fresh act came out of Korea, he would be ignored unless he fit some tiny niche (e.g. kung-fu Fu Manchu nerdcore rapper) that was only available to him because no American could possibly occupy that role.

      Would America ever welcome a “normal” Asian star? That’s the question we still can’t answer, though historically, the answer has been a big NO.

  • Mickey

    What about Ming-Na Wen? And Margaret Cho had a leading role on a cool, though short-lived, TV show in the 90s called “All-American Girl”. But the problem with that show is that many people still had problems with that show. One of the problems was that although it was ground-breaking in that there had never been a show where the entire cast or lead was Asian/part Asian, almost all of the characters were from varying Asian ethnic groups – none, except for Cho, were Korean.

  • DeDeMouse

    To think about it, it’s a good way if Japan & Korea media start to realize this kind of double standard and should put more focus on limiting how US entertainment can go easily into their mass. Kinda harsh. But that’s reality.

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  • Anonymous

    Good analysis and I agree with what you say about Psy’s seemingly clownish and sexually non-threatening image possibly explaining his popularity in America. This makes me wonder if South Asian males are treated in a similar fashion, where the less sexually threatening and more clownish they behave, the more well-accepted they become in Western mainstream media. When Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan tried to become popular in Hollywood through his English movie debut Kites, he failed to do so. While there are some Indian characters in a few popular TV shows, most of them seem to be situated in comedies. Thus there seems to be a strong likelihood of this article’s premise applying to them too.
    About East Asian male characters, does anyone know how Hawaii 5-0 handles their characterization? I watched one episode once, and there seemed to be room for at least one beefcake character and one nerdy-looking one. I don’t know any more about their characterization and so would like to know if Hawaii 5-0 breaks out of the usual mold.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461891308315532959 refresh_daemon

      I just remembered that there actually was a South Asian musician that had some real notable success in Western music recently: Jay Sean. Of course, there’s also Freddie Mercury, who led one of Britian’s biggest bands for decades. I do think that South Asian diaspora from the West (Ben Kingsley, Danny Pudi, Aziz Ansari, etc.) tend to do better in the West than South Asians actually from Asia, so I do think some kind of Orientalism is still going on, but I’m not entirely versed well enough in the challenges that the South Asian community face when it comes to the stereotypes they face to be able to say that they are the same.

  • Dan Isbell

    Sandra Oh in about everything she’s ever done? You make a fair point about Asian actresses being somewhat limited in their roles, but I’d wager that they’ve had a bit more range than males. The key here, though, as zeek said, is the issue of sexuality: while Asian male sexuality hasn’t been so positively received in mainstream entertainment, Asian female sexuality has (even if it pigeon-holed/fetishized). Sexuality as a limiting factor for Asian men breaking through seems to be a key point for the author, and from that perspective, there’s no reason why Girls Generation or Utada shouldn’t be able to find success in North America. To be fair, the author does talk about cultural issues- boy/girl groups not being “in”.

  • Dan Isbell

    Sandra Oh in about everything she’s ever done? You make a fair point about Asian actresses being somewhat limited in their roles, but I’d wager that they’ve had a bit more range than males. The key here, though, as zeek said, is the issue of sexuality: while Asian male sexuality hasn’t been so positively received in mainstream entertainment, Asian female sexuality has (even if it pigeon-holed/fetishized). Sexuality as a limiting factor for Asian men breaking through seems to be a key point for the author, and from that perspective, there’s no reason why Girls Generation or Utada shouldn’t be able to find success in North America. To be fair, the author does talk about cultural issues- boy/girl groups not being “in”.

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  • Yaara

    BoA is great and deserves better (or maybe not–we’re talking one of history’s most successful performers), but let’s be honest all of these other acts are totally canned and none of their songs do anything different or, worse, they sound like mainstream American music from the mid-80′s.

    It doesn’t matter how well they dance, pronounce English or sing if they don’t produce music that Americans want to listen to.

    What’s much more disturbing to me is the absence of Asian Americans in the American pop scene.

  • Yaraa

    I absolutely agree that we have some serious stereotypes about Asian men (and women) in American media–and maybe some of these are responsible for Psy’s success, but I don’t know that they are absolutely responsible for the failure of other pop stars before him. I like Rain ok, he’s dreamy and he’s talented as hell, but he’s still very, very K-Pop and that was a genre I had to learn to appreciate. Popular Korean hip-hop artists have a very different aesthetic than American hip-hop artists and the content of their lyrics is totally different as well–it often feels like someone took a Karen Carpenter song and gave it a beat or something. It just doesn’t meet our expectations or interests. I would say this is also true of Jay Chow. He’s hella talented and I love his music–now, but it took a couple of years to learn to appreciate it. Until then, I just thought he was a poser. Non-hip hop music, especially from Japan and Korea, is often totally of a different era.

    Then along comes Psy and his video, which is an obvious send-up of the popular music video. Anyone can get the humor in the angry, rapid rapping close-up pulling out to reveal the rapper sitting on the toilet, or see how absurd it is that Psy and these women doing the usually sexy line-up dance be interrupted by a trash storm. A lot of the video is full of WTF scenes for outsiders to the language or culture, but they aren’t that far off from the kind of humor Americans like, anyway. He has this song that sounds like the kind of sound people like right now and this viral-ready video and it’s satirical, which a lot of good hip-hop is.

    Unfortunately, I doubt that this is the proverbial toe in the door for K-pop or, more lamentably in my opinion, Chinese Pop to find a broad American audience.

  • little mixed girl

    as someone pointed out, rain is doing military service right now. that’s the major reason why he hasn’t been around. i think he has another year to go.
    i think that’s PSY’s success with gangnam style in the US can be found in current hipster culture (dressing and dancing “ironically”), the catchy tune and the fact that he wasn’t trying to make it in the US. PSY, unlike william hung, is in charge of his image. just like the hipster with the “ironic” beard or mustache, “ironic” plaid vests, etc.
    i listen to girls’ generation, but the english lyrics for the boys were meh at best. “life is a mystery, i’m gonna make history”? ok….
    i think the wonder girls did a great job, the music video for 2 different tears was interesting and the song was catchy in english and korean.
    like i said, PSY came out with a video that tapped into the hipster mindset and it was fun/funny AND it had a catchy beat that’s great for radio.

  • http://twitter.com/emiloves_ \sabrina\

    To be quite honest, I believe the Western Industry is incredibly threatened by Asians in general. I know it’s hard for some people to see past the ideas of the people immediately around them. It’s easy to fall into this way of thinking that just because your friends/family, etc. find things okay, that they are. Look at the history of Asian Women in film too. They also all fall into specific archetypes and niches. None of which are very positive.

  • Enter Name Here

    I’m surprised no one mentioned LMFAO. I actually thought of them and their success with “Sexy and I Know It” and “Party Rock Anthem.” They are not the typical Usher-looking type stars who are older, but make funny videos with catchy beats, dances, and are loaded with confidence. And this we didn’t anything like that this year until PSY came along. I felt that PSY would hit the same “one-hit wonder” status that these guys did.

    • Anonymous

      I just wanted to point out that more people are making that connection.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2WR4OELC2QGA42XOIRPUZ2SKHQ Nobody

      Exactly. LMFAO is probably a good comparison. RedFoo and the other Berry guy are goofy, but dont come across as emasculated wimps. Same with Psy., The dude’s gangsta style.

    • kara

      i find the guys in lmfao mad hot. honestly, there are different reasons we find psy and lmfao funny.

  • http://twitter.com/emiloves_ \sabrina\

    I just need to high-five for the Glen Check track <3

  • NotCoreana

    I watched all of the videos above, and some of those in the tumblr link and, well… Everything’s kind of blah. I could barely get through the self-important monotone minutes long preambles. Then once I got into the songs, it just sounded like watered down imitation versions of American songs, and what’s the fun in listening to echoes of something that’s already blaring in the US? If anything, it reminded me of the Christian music market, which is equally as (I’m sorry) dull.

    Whereas in the first few seconds of PSY, which I head on the radio and not on video and was intrigued just because of that, hey — it sounds GOOD and unique and fun.

    In addition, all the people on the list above are detailed as bending over backwards to learn English and/or market themselves as highly polished, absolutely perfect media sensations without any roughness around the edges, just to reach American audiences. And then there’s PSY, who’s doing the opposite and, frankly, just dancing around with a horse and doing his own thing. I’ll take an anachronistic original out-there artist over Christian muzak anytime.

    • RReader

      I agree. I think much of K-pop, for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with stereotypes of East Asians, doesn’t translate will into American culture. The bland, government-subsidized Korean Pop-powerhouse just hasn’t produced anything that could translate so well outside of Asia.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

        @658c547aaf039d1f47be61a6ec346920:disqus

        It’s not that K-pop dosen’t translate well into Western culture, it’s just like NotCoreana said,some of the music does seem like watered-down versions of American music we’re already heard 10,000 times before. BTW, “Gangnam Style” is blowing up all over pop stations in the Detroit area as well as nationwide–just heard it a couple of times in the past 24 hours, and I love that it’s actually getting big play on the radio! If someone had told me 3 months ago when I first saw the video from a link posted on a favorite site that this particular tune would be a huge hit here in the U.S., I probably would’ve said, “Yeah, right,whatever,” but, apparently it did. It’s obviously a real-honest-to-goodness novelty, and the song itself sounds like most dance tunes I hear on the radio every day, but it’s still fun as hell to listen to, and I still love that silly video!

        But,yeah, I’ve wondered for some years why there are virtually no Asian-Americans as lead singers in any bands, or even an all-AA band climbing the charts (with the exception of Far East Movement—-still riding around in my G6–just playing!) I’ve found that odd particularly when some years ago, a young AA singer named Coco Lee, who became a huge sensation in China, was set to blow up here (I only knew about her because my sister was a fan) but for some reason, she didn’t make that big crossover either,despite her being American. The only lead singer of a rock band I can think of that’s of AA descent is Doug Robb of the band Hoobastank (I believe he’s Chinese/Scottish) but yeah, AAs as a whole don’t seem to be pushed toward being pop stars for some weird reason.

        I read an essay in a good book called ASIAN AMERICAN X (worth tracking down) written by a young AA woman who said that she had always wanted to sing, but was basically told that Asian-Americans didn’t sing,or something ridiculous like that.and didn’t get much encouragement to do it because it didn’t fit the stereotype of what she was expected to do as an AA. It wasn’t until a black friend of hers told her she had a good voice that she started to seriously pursue her dream. Makes you wonder if it’s that same lack of encouragement that keeps AAs from going into the music biz and getting into mainstream
        pop music. Heck, even on American Idol,virtually none of the ones who won were Asian-American! It’s a shame, though

    • Anonymous

      Can you really call Psy more original than the Asian pop artist that were listed in the Tumblr account above? Gangnam Style is just a carbon-copy of American-style pop influenced EDM with a short Asian guy doing a horse dance.

      While Gangnam-style is funny parody music, that format of music has been done a million times over in the US during this internet age by folks like Lonely Island.. I thought Gangnam Style was a funny music video, but it was hardly what I’d call unique, the style of music is hardly unique, and I don’t see what makes him so much more viable over the mass-produced K-Pop artist that struggle to break into the American market.

      I honestly think the person that wrote this article was spot-on with how we Americans view Asians. Had Psy been non-Asian, it wouldn’t have been as big, because part of the appeal to Psy, and the Gangnam-Style music vid, is the fact that it shows this goofy, clownish, short Asian dude doing goofy, clownish dancing. And I’m not gonna lie, it worked.

      I found myself laughing at the goofiness of the vid. But then I thought, had these folks had been foreigners of another race, or had they been Americans, I wouldn’t have found it as funny and appealing. I’m not Asian, but I can kinda see what some Asians are saying about this. I can see what the person who wrote this article, and the person who made that Tumblr post meant.

  • EK

    I would add that the crazy, zany, goofy, clownish character that plays so well for Western audiences has its counterpart in Korean pop culture, where the non-sexy comical actor or talent, who is usually chubby and loud mouthed, is a common trope. Think of the four unattractive guys from Gag Concert – one is fat, one a country bumpkin (and looks it), one is short, and the last is unpopular (just cuz). But they are the most popular skit on the comedy show. It makes perfect sense, as the article outlines, why it would be this type of K-pop star that would be a breakout hit in the western-dominated mediascape, but it is also of a piece with the pre-existing jester-like figure in South Korea.

  • EK

    I would add that the crazy, zany, goofy, clownish character that plays so well for Western audiences has its counterpart in Korean pop culture, where the non-sexy comical actor or talent, who is usually chubby and loud mouthed, is a common trope. Think of the four unattractive guys from Gag Concert – one is fat, one a country bumpkin (and looks it), one is short, and the last is unpopular (just cuz). But they are the most popular skit on the comedy show. It makes perfect sense, as the article outlines, why it would be this type of K-pop star that would be a breakout hit in the western-dominated mediascape, but it is also of a piece with the pre-existing jester-like figure in South Korea.

  • Clara

    Great article! I agree with your points, however I wanted to point out that Psy is not without any sexuality whatsoever. In the Gangnam Style music video, he DOES have a love interest in Hyuna, whose career is all about being sexy. Yes, he act like a clown in the video, but he still gets the girl! And also, the follow up video “Oppa is my style” is all about Hyuna being into someone like Psy. I realize that the mainstream American audience might not have watched Hyuna’s video, but it’s still an example of Psy being desirable.

  • Clara

    Great article! I agree with your points, however I wanted to point out that Psy is not without any sexuality whatsoever. In the Gangnam Style music video, he DOES have a love interest in Hyuna, whose career is all about being sexy. Yes, he act like a clown in the video, but he still gets the girl! And also, the follow up video “Oppa is my style” is all about Hyuna being into someone like Psy. I realize that the mainstream American audience might not have watched Hyuna’s video, but it’s still an example of Psy being desirable.

  • klatwork

    I think Psy’s success is just basically the fact that people can’t get the song out of their heads……the song is a success because it’s extremely catchy…just like Macarena…The video would’ve just become the average viral video that would never amount to commercial success if not for a catchy tune….I’m sure there must be racism in America, but I don’t see the american audience willing to turn away from a good song on the radio just because it’s sung by an asian artist…The problem is there were only a few asian artists who tried to break in and they relied too much on American producers who gave them mediocre work..the 2nd problem is there isn’t enough buzz/push from their company for radio/media to pick it up….If you ask 100 Americans, how many have heard of Boa’s Eat You Up or Girl’s Generation – The Boys? So is it the average American giving them the cold shoulder or music companies who’s never given them the push? I think it’s the latter…

  • http://twitter.com/Marlina_Koh Marlina Koh

    Excuse me, but i find Psy to be quite desirable. Thank You. He just happen to enter it the right way, nothing too serious, through humor in this delicate situation around the world. Bad economy and many tensions around, he just presented entertainment and happiness. Maybe that’s why he and his video become viral.

    • Anonymous

      We should remember that “Gangnam Style” is a massive hit in South Korea, and for much the same reason: we all need to have some fun in these dreary days. The economy’s bad in most countries, and both we and South Korea have presidential elections this year, and from what I know the race over there doesn’t have too many people enthused.

  • Elton

    Here’s a good documentary on the subject:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Slanted_Screen

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.newman.7146 Michael Newman

    Good Read. As A boxing fan I believe one of the major reasons Manny Pacquiao has had success is because he fits whats acceptable to american mainstream. Floyd Mayweather too(though I argue he knows it sells) Manny has that short impish quiet asian man persona and while iet may just be who he is, it fits to the stereotype. He isnt loud, not a troublemaker, and speaks broken english(not knockin it, but if fits). Opposite Floyd Mayweather, who is deamed a trouble maker and loud, and audacious. No wonder the two most popular boxers both fit their respective stereoypes.

  • http://twitter.com/syarrizvi Shahryar Rizvi

    One of the factors in Rain’s disappearance from pop culture was him getting called up to compulsory military service in South Korea last year. Only time will tell if he returns to celebrity after his term of service finishes next year.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=700112059 Courtnee Tiggy Howell

      I figured that’s what happen. I think he’ll still be that hotness when he returns

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=700112059 Courtnee Tiggy Howell

      I figured that’s what happen. I think he’ll still be that hotness when he returns

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kristin-Oldfather/575375784 Kristin Oldfather

    100% agree on this. I felt this way after seeing PSY being paraded about in the US media but the fact that there was an articulate article over this makes me so very happy. Also a bit angry and sad having these findings become actual truth instead of curious contemplation’s. Surprised there was no mention of Ken Jeong from The Hangover, I find the ‘asian stereotype’ from an American standpoint to fit his personality from The Hangover just as well.

  • Anon

    Actually, in regard’s to Jet Li’s kiss scene in “Romeo Must Die” being edited out, that was due to the fact that the director thought it was better to cut out the scene to make Aaliyah and Jet Li’s characters not seem so detached by kissing right after Li’s character’s father committed suicide and Aaliyah’s character had just killed a man.

  • http://twitter.com/eshowoman Friday Foster-ABWW

    The reaction against Jet Li kissing Aaliyah probably had more to do with with the bias against of seeing black women as romantic objects in film. Cinematic interracial sex with black women is for titillation and usually doesn’t lead to romance or happily ever after. Having Jet Li’s character save a black woman and express long term love for her would be treating her to much like the cinematic ideal of a white woman. It hasn’t changed, Rain did not kiss Naomi Harris in Ninja Assassin either.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461891308315532959 refresh_daemon

      I’m sure there might have been multiple forms of racism involved in the reason why the characters couldn’t get together.

    • Shirley

      I think you’re right. Thanks for pointing that out to me, sistah.

  • ZoomSis

    I sort of thought it had more to do with linguistic laziness + tempo + dance moves.

    “Macarena” = It’s easy to sing the chorus, even if you don’t speak a lick of the complicated Spanish lyrics that follow. It’s a catchy, upbeat tune plus easy dance moves that even the klutziest non-dancer can accomplish.

    “YMCA” = It’s easy to sing the chorus, even if you are, for instance, a local in Barcelona or Tokyo or Rio who doesn’t speak a lick of the
    complicated English lyrics that follow. It’s a catchy, upbeat tune plus easy
    dance moves that even the klutziest non-dancer can accomplish.

    “Gangnam Style” = It’s easy to sing the chorus, even if you don’t speak a lick
    of the complicated Korean lyrics that follow. It’s a catchy, upbeat tune plus
    easy dance moves that even the klutziest non-dancer can accomplish.

    If you say “Why PSY and not Rain or Girls Generation?” it seems to me you have to ask “Why are people singing along to the Village People when Aretha Franklin or Kool and the Gang is so much more deserving of their attention?” It feels a little apples to oranges since those other artists are kinda sorta similar but, well… Missing that magic ingredient that makes “YMCA” so catchy in the first place.

    • anna

      No one’s disputing that a lot of the song’s popularity is due to the catchy beat and fun, easy dance. But whereas a lot of people in other countries will probably recognize Aretha Franklin’s songs, or Whitney Houston or you know, Justin Bieber, most people in Western countries couldn’t name one Asian/Asian American song or performer right off the bat. Jolin is one of the biggest popstars in Taiwan, but you mention her name here and no one will know who she is. And it’s not like there aren’t any artists in Asia that are deserving of attention. But they don’t get that attention, period.

      • NyanWhittier

        I guess I could argue that if I have the original trendsetter (the Aretha Franklin’s and Whitney Houston’s and Justin Biebers) here in front of me in the US, why do I have to pay attention to derivative ‘echo’ acts overseas and know their name, too?

        If there are Asian Asian/American trendsetters who originated – not just copied – the style of music that’s at the very forefront of what millions of people are listening to, then it would make sense to know who they are. But a quick scan of all the other acts mentioned on this thread and post made me think that, with the exception of PSY, they’re just imitating preexisting American acts.

        Someone said that BoA has skills “America hasn’t seen in a pop star since Usher.” Well, I have Usher. So why do I need BoA? And that Girls Generation was singing stuff “written by one of Michael Jackson’s old song writers.” Why wouldn’t I just listen to Michael Jackson if I want a Michael Jackson vibe? And if Wonder Girls is trying to be the new Spice Girls, I’ve seen and heard the original. Who cares about yet another group of female singer-dancer-personality types since it’s 2012 and not 1995 any more?

        PSY though, I can’t think of anybody in the US or abroad who’s doing candy colored pop culture dance moves and music with a stable of horses. Maybe Cee-Lo is the closest I can come, and even then I can’t picture myself on a dance floor with my friends all doing the same dance move to Cee-Lo like we did with Macarena. So he’s definitely original and unique.

      • dersk

        Yeah, that’s just a tautology. Americans aren’t aware of Asian stars who haven’t made it in America? But people around the world are aware of American stars, who’ve made it in a country that specializes in exporting pop culture? Seems pretty reasonable to me.

        Starting from my assumption that 99% of pop music is basically regurgitation and that success has more to do with promotion and the business side than quality, I’d bet that the biggest barrier is getting K/J pop starts integrated into ClearChannel’s business model. They do control a whole heck of a lot of American radio.
        But what do I know? I’m listening to a bluegrass podcast right now, so I’m pretty well out of the loop…

  • http://www.facebook.com/owenlei Owen Lei

    Jeff Yang does address this idea briefly in the column he wrote last month, but you definitely get more into the heart of the stereotype. Thanks for doing so. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/08/28/gangnam-style-viral-popularity-in-u-s-has-koreans-puzzled-gratified/

  • http://twitter.com/originalspin Jeff Yang

    Hey, you know what I hate about arguments like this? I’m a “funny” guy who looks more like PSY than I look like Rain. Does that make me someone who “doesn’t pose any threat of making Asian men seem sexually desirable”? Jeez. Let’s just accept that you can be chubby and goofy looking and still attractive to the opposite sex (or the same sex, depending on what grooves you), okay? The overweighting of “hotness” in the conversation about Asian masculinity is trite and frankly oppressive; I’m pretty sure that if you wrote this same essay but were talking about hot vs. ugly Asian female celebrities, you’d get quite a few people expressing their disgust. For now, I guess it’s just me.

    • Anonymous

      With respect, the column isn’t endorsing that stereotype, it’s pointing it out:


      That brings us to PSY: for all his breakout success, there is a good likelihood that he fits a particular role that mainstream Western media permits for Asian men.

      That’s not a slam on Psy’s looks or anybody who might be called “funny.” If anything, it’s decrying the fact that it’s a factor — for better or worse — in him getting over to this degree, while non-comedic acts or performers like Jay Chou get shunted to the side.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461891308315532959 refresh_daemon

      Hi Jeff, you make a very good point and I most definitely don’t mean that people who are not absolute model of mainstream-determined “hotness” are actually undesirable, but merely that mainstream media values a certain type of aesthetic in their men and I am stating the sentiment of the mainstream media values and how it influences who it deems safe and acceptable. I absolutely agree that the values of the mainstream entertainment media are ridiculous and that in real life, it doesn’t hold true at all.

    • http://twitter.com/polianarchy Pi

      Right? Oops, I guess I’m the *only* hetero American cis-woman who was instantly attracted to PSY because I find him super-sexy.

    • squawk

      @Mr. Yang

      Yeah, PSY might not fit the Western definition of attractiveness,but he’s got charisma to burn, and his ability to tear it up on the dance floor–once again proving that looks have absolutely nothing to do with talent—-s frankly, attractive and sexy in itself. I don’t think he necessarily fits a stereotype,it”s just something he got shoehorned into by Western media. I love the song and video,mainly because it sounds pretty much like the dance music I hear every day on the radio anyway,the only difference being that it’s in Korean. And,yeah, I’m tired of this whole “hotness” thing—-basically,if you don’t fit into whatever current definition of whatever the hell looks are currently considered hot,you’re not even considered worry to even be checked for. It’s just bullshit, because one’s so-called hotness has absolutely NOTHING to do with talent, or even how you are as a person sometimes. Plus the definition of “hotness” seems to change every couple of years, anyway, so it’s just a shallow and fickle concept to begin with.

      All this talk of K-pop reminded me of a Korean hip-hop artist named Tasha Yoon Mi Rae (her spouse is the lead in that Drunken Tiger group) I discovered on YouTube 4 years ago while looking up vids for rapper Jin Au-Young, who was hyped to be the Asian-American answer to Eminem (I got his CD) sadly that didn’t happen due to his CD being released too late to build upon the hype, so he relocated to Hong Kong and became a star there. In Yoon Mi Rae’s case, she’s a black Korean-American (born in Texas,like I was) who became a big hop hop star a decade ago in Korea. You’d think that since she’s originally American,that this would have given her an edge to break into the American market, but that dosen’t seem to have happened for her,either. Here’s a recent video from her I found:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Pq5C1LA9Xk (Get It In)

    • Yaara

      Yeah, Psy doesn’t come across as sex-less in the video at all. In fact his interaction with women in the video exemplifies the pop music video standard of a male singer objectifying and manipulating female human props at whim (the lasso dance move on the subway and him air-molesting the yoga student are pitch-perfect)–while perfectly skewering that image. But there’s nothing really asexual about his role in the video.

      I dunno, I kind of feel like Psy’s punking America just like everything else. If Americans don’t get it, the joke just ends up being that much funnier.

      I love this video. I just love it. It feels like ages since I saw a music video that even made any damn sense, let alone actually had something to say. Hip-hop is the international language, the Esperanto of the modern world, and this video proves it. I don’t doubt that some people listen to this song or watch the video and totally miss the message, but for those of us that get it a little bit, it’s a treasure.

  • EreNaija

    And just to add one more thing- I really don’t think there’s that much difference between Psy’s success with ‘Gangnam Style’ song and dance and Los del Rio’s success with the ‘Macarena’ song and dance. That was actually the first thing I thought about when I heard about the popularity of Gangnam style. So while your analysis has merit, it could also be as straightforward as Gangnam style is 2012′s Macarena first and foremost, before any subsequent dissection.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461891308315532959 refresh_daemon

      Hi EreNaija, I absolutely agree with you that this is not the major story behind the song’s success. I would say that Psy is popular due to a perfect storm of having the right gimmick at the right time (like Los Del Rios, who I also immediately thought of once the song took off), further enhanced by internet meme culture in particular, as suggested by Dana at Seoulbeats (
      http://seoulbeats.com/2012/09/unpopular-opinion-psy-isnt-doing-k-pop-any-favors/) and Colette Bennett at CNN (http://geekout.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/18/the-universal-language-of-gangnam-style/), among others. I write not to point out the major factor of the song’s success which is basically that a talented funny dude made a good electropop song and a hilarious video and dance to go with it, but that there is a racial undercurrent has an impact on the song’s immediate acceptability to the Western mainstream.

  • EreNaija

    I understand the critique you make here, but to some extent I disagree that this is the major story behind the song’s success. The main reason, I think, is wrapped up in that adage or other that ‘you can’t beat the master at his own game’. America has dominated much of pop music for so long, with creative, innovative pop artists borrowing (and yes, outright stealing) from the wealth of diverse cultures that live in this country.
    So far, many of the Asian- mainly Korean and Japanese- pop acts I’ve seen seem to more or less copy and paste (note, I didn’t say adapt) many of the musical styles American acts have been performing for decades without adding their own unique flavor to any of it. The result- we have Korean singers singing whole songs in English with tired drumbeats and too familiar styled outfits, hair and make-up. There’s nothing different there, nothing to excite people in the US who’ve seen this done 10,000 times over 20 years ago. I’ve had this exact same conversation with friends on the popularity of certain Nigerian songs in the international music scene versus others- (see this Ajegunle boy with a heavy Yoruba accent trying to rap a Jay-Z ripoff song. Cue eye-rolling and stabby feelings inducing music but that is a discussion for another day). My point is, what I’ve noticed, after living in the US for so long is that Americans want something different from what they’re used to, when it comes to media consumption. Bring on the Fela Kutis, the Korean dramas that are so massively different from what they’re used to, and 9 times out of 10, they’ll pounce on it with gleeful glee- hence the success of Psy’s song. Tired 80′s styled videos with 90′s era generic pop music copy and pasted from ‘America: the greatest hits’ music machine? Next

  • Simon

    Very very good analysis. PSY for all his great work just fits into the clown Asian male role that the West can digest. Anything more is unpalatable.

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  • sarahkim

    Spot-on analysis. I’ve been reading so much about PSY’s social critiques in the song, but I’m glad you addressed this point explaining his popularity in the West. These cultural stereotypes are still not obvious to the mainstream, so thank you for your clear & concise analysis.

  • Elton

    Great article! Bravo!

    It takes time for old stereotypes and barriers to fade away. About 15 years ago, when Garrett Wang as Harry Kim was getting rejected by Seven on Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, and Jackie Chan was still the only Asian celebrity anyone in America could think of, I never would have imagined that representations of Asian/Asian American men would be so numerous in pop culture. From George Takei coming out and back into public consciousness, to Jeremy Lin’s unprecedented leap from obscurity to the most talked-about man in the NBA, to Harold and Kumar becoming legit movie stars, to the Far East Movement hitting #1, to the Jabbawockeez winning ABDC, to all the artists and musicians and poets on YouTube just being themselves, I really didn’t think we’d see so many Asian men in the media so soon.

    Simply displaying the fact that we exist, and speak English, and do stuff that we want to do, goes a long way towards breaking down those old stereotypes and barriers. The more we strive to authentically display our individuality and passion, the sillier those stereotypes will seem. And when you see a PSY, or a William Hung, or a Hiro Nakamura (remember Heroes?) who seems to fit a stereotype: Take a closer look, because I think you’ll see just a tiny little subversive edge to them.