In supermarkets and shopping malls, on soccer fields and in offices – basically, everywhere that mainstream North Americans gather – you’re hearing talk of something that a lot of people thought would never crack the mainstream – an Asian music video.
“Hey,” they all say, “have you seen that crazy Gangnam Style thing?”
Yes, Korean rapper PSY has boldly gone where no J-rockers or K-poppers have gone before – to the top of the American charts. (As of last week, the song was the #2 hit in the country). So, does this mean your long devotion to Asian music is about to pay off in an array of fabulous career opportunities as it takes the country by storm? Not so fast – there’s more at work here than meets the eye.Now, to ask K-pop enthusiasts, you’d think this was the breakthrough they’ve been waiting for . “K-POP IS TAKING OVER!!!” fans of boy band Big Bang and girl group 2NE1 enthused on the Entertainment Weekly message boards. Only problem is, the song in question wasn’t by their favorites – nor was it by any of the J-rock bands who have failed to crack the American mainstream despite extremely devoted fans and support from Sirius/XM.
PSY is, at first glance, an unlikely pop messiah. He doesn’t look like an airbrushed pretty boy, and he raps mostly in Korean. But what he does have is a sharp sense of presentation and some of the wackiest and most stunning dance moves since Michael Jackson donned a glittery glove.
It’s the dancing that is largely responsible for the video going viral in a huge way. Initially circulated within the geek community, it leaked out to their parents and co-workers and exploded into the mainstream – as of this writing, it’s racked up over 354 million views on YouTube.
So, this logically means that PSY is the forerunner of an Asian Invasion, right? It’ll be the Beatles all over again, when one artist kicks the door open for untold hoards from their region of the world. We’ll have SHINEE and Nightmare shirts in Hot Topic just in time for Christmas!
Only . . . not. What one has to consider is how the Western mainstream is viewing the video. One commenter on Entertainment Weekly’s site said, “They’re not laughing with PSY, they’re laughing at him.” While that assessment may be way harsh, it points out that there’s a definite culture gap at work here. PSY intended his song to be a sharp satire of the pretentious nouveau riche who populate Seoul’s Gangnam district. His original audience will get it, as will people in other parts of the world who are familiar with Korean culture. Your average viewer? “Oooh, look at that crazy horse dance!”
Stripped of its original meaning and becoming a random pile of craziness, Gangnam Style is being approached by Westerners as a “novelty song.” We’re all familiar with them – they’re silly songs that explode onto the chart and are suddenly everywhere, before everyone tires of the joke and they fade away. There’s the kind that come with a dance, like Gangnam Style itself – The Macarena comes immediately to mind. There’s others that are satires on current fads (Disco Duck, anyone?) or just insanity (They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha!)
But what these have in common is they’re one-hit wonders and never taken seriously. Once the fad is gone, it’s gone – when was the last time you saw anyone doing the Macarena, other than at your cousin’s wedding?
So, no, this may not be the Asian Invasion. But don’t despair, J-rockers and K-poppers. Gangnam Style may have something of an impact after all. You see, this song is making North American radio and music distributors realize something – that maybe, just maybe, people might accept songs in languages other than English.
This doesn’t mean they’re instantly going to grab anything by a group of dancing-in-perfect-synch Korean ladies or makeup-slathered Japanese dudes and slam it into their CD players (do radio stations still use them?). But if they get enough feedback from listeners that a given record from another part of the world is really, really good, and worth a listen, they may be more likely to do so.
So while this isn’t kicking the door open for Asian music, at least it’s opening it a little crack. It’s up to fan activism to open it a little further. - Bonnie Walling