HONG KONG — “Gangnam Style” has been the musical and dance hit of the year, to say the least, and one half expects to see a pirated Politburo version leaked out of the Communist Party congress in Beijing in a few weeks.
The song, a wacky, upbeat ditty by the South Korean rapper and singer Psy, has galloped to the top of the pop charts in the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada. The official video has been watched more than 350 million times on Youtube, making it No. 5 on the site’s all-time music list.
There have been homemade video renditions of Psy’s horsey dance — not all of them well-received — by Thai naval officers, California lifeguards, North Korean propagandists, red-suited male and female prisoners in the Philippines and the University of Oregon marching band. At a party following an Asian-American awards banquet last week, U.S. Congressman Mike Honda showed off his Gangnam moves.
Psy’s real name is Park Jae-sang. He is 34, the father of twin girls, and was born in Seoul, in the upscale Gangnam district. He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston and released his first album of hip-hop songs in 2001. He has been something of a midlevel star until this summer’s breakout hit, and he’s hardly one of the hard-bodied, highly produced clones who populate the K-pop universe.
Not everyone is buying into the adoration, however.
Arwa Mahdawi, a commentator writing in The Guardian, said “the last time the West laughed so uproariously at a Korean singer was when an animated Kim Jong-il bewailed how ‘ronery’ he was in the film ‘Team America,’ and how nobody took him ‘serirousry.’ The puppet had a point: Popular Western media doesn’t tend to take east Asian men seriously — even when they’re brutal dictators.
“The stereotype of a portly, non-threatening Charlie Chan-type who speaks ‘comical’ English is still very much alive, apparent in everything from hungry Kim Jong-un memes to Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts,” Ms. Mahdawi said.
“And it’s hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that this stereotype is contributing something to the laughter around ‘Gangnam Style.’ ”
“What is missing from much commentary on Psy’s video is the existing American cultural context that embraces stereotypes of Asians while rejecting more realistic portrayals,” said Crystal S. Anderson, associate professor of English at Elon University in North Carolina and a contributor to the Web site hellokpop.
“When people ask why Psy’s video is so popular, this is one of the major issues that goes unanswered,” Ms. Anderson said. “I think more people are laughing at Psy than laughing with him.”
On the Racialicious Web site, a commentary headlined “Psy and the Acceptable Asian Man” said:
Alongside clowns from other mediums like Ken Jeong (and yellowface disgraces like Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi 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.
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.
In a piece in Mother Jones, Deanna Pan said “Psy is the ‘Asian man who makes it’ because he fits neatly into our pop cultural milieu wherein Asian men are either kung-fu fighters, Confucius-quoting clairvoyants or the biggest geeks in high school.”
These and other critiques seem to suggest a corollary to “yellowface,” the much-criticized casting (especially in Hollywood) of Caucasian performers in Asian roles, a phenomenon previously explored here on Rendezvous.
“I don’t think ‘Gangnam Style’ is racist, because I don’t think Psy intended to create a song or video for a global audience,” said Joz Wang, a journalist and blogger in Los Angeles, in an e-mail message to Rendezvous. “It seems to me that Psy’s mocking (or self-mocking) is squarely directed at those in South Korea who already had an idea of what Gangnam Style is . . .That is, before he came along and turned things upside-down!
“I happen to think the song is totally danceable and silly. It’s also fun because you can’t do the dance while taking yourself very seriously. While this is indeed a major breakthrough for K-pop, I don’t think this means it has ‘arrived.’ If anything, it has opened the doors but how rapidly others come in after Psy is yet to be seen.”
Amy He, managing editor at the Web site seoulbeats, said in an interview with the British newspaper Metro that Psy’s success with “Gangnam Style” will not necessarily boost K-pop’s wider acceptance in the West.
“He puts out great music and is a very popular artist,” she said, “but he is not reflective of the mainstream K-pop scene at large, which is filled to the brim with boy and girl groups.
“More worrying is that a lot of people latch on to ‘Gangnam Style’ because of preconceived stereotypes of Asians: Psy is the funny Asian guy who’s doing the funny dance in the funny song.”
What are your thoughts? Is Gangnam Style's acceptance among Western audience reflective of the West's tradition of racism against Asians? (The answer is Yes.)