Foreigners taking Korea on their own terms.

Over the last few weeks my friends and I have had a lot of conversations about how Koreans have got to understand that foreigners aren't going to necessarily love Korea in the same way that Koreans love Korea, and that it's okay. Kimchi isn't going to be the wonder food internationally that it is to Koreans -- bulgogi, or galbi or samgyeopsal ("Korean BBQ"), on the other hand, can go a long, long way. Also, fuse the kimchi with a taco, and what have you got? Something foreigners will flock toward.

It isn't necessarily going to happen on Koreans' terms.

And then "Gangnam Style" happened. And I don't think I've ever seen the Koreans around me puzzle over something so intensely. Today in the car with my coworker, the conversation on the radio turned toward the song and how it's popping up all over in the foreign media. My coworker turned the radio down and after a long, serious pause said, "What is it about this song?"

I didn't really have an answer for her, other than that it's funny. But she's confused as to why, with all of the groups that Korea has worked so hard to export -- the really well put-together, trained and polished groups, Psy is the one that finally made it. And this song, specifically. "To us," she said, "it's just Psy."

It's been the subject of a lot of articles, news commentary and interviews over the past few days. Why Psy? Why "Gangnam Style"?

The thing is, Koreans have gone nuts for the song and the video as well. Perhaps more nuts than I've seen them go over anything in a long time (other than Busker Busker, whose entire catalog "Gangnam Style" is only beginning to edge out, as far as things you hear blaring out of shops while walking down the sidewalk). So I don't think it should  be so much of a mystery. As for why it's this specific song that's made it out, I don't have an answer, but it's fairly obvious to me why the average American young person would have more of a connection to a Psy video than a Super Junior video.

And, believe it or not, it's safe to say that a lot of Westerners are mystified about the things imported from the West that end up trending as big as the do with Koreans, at times, as well. But one thing's for sure -- this video is definitely not fusion. It's all Korea.

Speaking of fusion, here's a short film made by a friend of a friend living in Seoul:

A New Machine from Tony Clavelli on Vimeo.

You can see his other stuff here. Being not in the least artistically inclined, myself, I find it amazing that someone is able to make something like this.


Hayne P said...

I feel like the West is still uncomfortable with making Asians sexy, especially men. Psy is funny and catchy, and doesn't have to deal with the problem of being too sexy or good looking for the West. Just my thought.

I guess it helps that he is very different from other groups though. And his dance is really fun to do.

Anonymous said...

"the really well put-together, trained and polished groups"

Or to put it another way, the robotic automatons who've all gotten the same sets of plastic surgery.

I can't stand Kpop, but I like that this song and video are kind of silly and ridiculous but most importantly, he seems to be enjoying himself. That alone sets him apart from the "groomed" groups.

For similar reasons I always thought Dynamic Duo might break through in the US.

Chris in South Korea said...

If Psy's success outside of Korea can be attributed to any one thing, it's innovativeness. Energy and the fact that he doesn't look like a robot are exceptionally important.

To compare K-pop to most burger joints - you get pretty much the same thing from everywhere, with a few twists here and there, but at the end of the day it's still a burger.

I'm no Picasso said...

Obviously it's Psy's originality that has set him apart. However, I do tend to take a little issue with people who are not very familiar with K-pop dropping the robot line. If you think Girls Generation is interchangable with 2NE1, for example.... or Big Bang with Super Junior?

Pop music of any kind is mass produced for mass consumption, and for that same reason, my boyfriend still can't tell the difference between Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Or Avril Lavigne and Taylor Swift.

But then again, my mom might consider my Interpol records to be indiscernible from Joy Division. Because she's not familiar with the music type. And a lot of people consider a lot of different categories of music to be "the same thing with a few twists", depending on their own taste. I've heard the same said for rap, country, heavy metal, folk and rock. So that argument doesn't really hold up for me.

What's different about Psy, however, I think is that my mom, my boyfriend and myself would all certainly be able to pick this song out from a line up, for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQlIhraqL7o

Why? Because it's different, it's funny and it's memorable.

Anonymous said...

"If you think Girls Generation is interchangable with 2NE1, for example.... or Big Bang with Super Junior?"

Pretty much, yeah.

Pop music can be great and highly commercial at the same time, no doubt. But 99% of Kpop is laughably robotic and annoying, by design. It all comes out of the same two or three production companies, and this will never breed quality.

Robyn, Lada Gaga, Rihanna, Adele -- not really my cup of tea, but at least they have some originality going for them.

I'm no Picasso said...

Wescasements -- If Girls Generation and 2NE1 look and sound exactly the same to you, then we are just going to have to agree to disagree. I don't really care for Kpop, but I find that statement to be completely bewildering. I don't know how anyone could look at those two groups and see the exact same thing, whether you like it or not.

Anonymous said...

The same? No. Interchangeable? Absolutely.

It's not music, it's musical product. The strings on the puppets are entirely too visible.

Taste being what it is, when I see Robyn perform I see a woman who writes her own songs and happens to get paid. When I see Kpop acts, especially the female ones, I see the product of years of sad, distasteful exploitation and I simply can't get over that.

Unknown said...

Taylor Swift write her own songs as well.. too bad it's garbage. Your choices for comparison is bemusing. Robyn is okay but I would hardly call her original. Lady Gaga? It's nothing that's hasn't been done before packaged in a more provocative wrapping. Lady Gaga is all about image creation (like Madonna was in an earlier era.) Rhianna?? If that's not exploitation I don't know what is. Even Adele offer nothing new... pretty safe in my view.

Not that I'm a big fan of KPop but at least choose better examples for comparison. I'm surprised you didn't bring up Justin Bieber.

Also, I also tend to believe that Psy's Gangnam Style is being more accepted in the west due to how it "seems" to fit a certain caricature of Asian male; foppish and ridiculous and seemingly nonthreatening asexual. Plus it has a decent beat and some universal physical humor. Not that I'm personally crazy about it but I have very specific musical taste.

John from Daejeon said...

I just wonder if this is nothing more than another one-hit wonder or will I want to speak Spanish like one of the true crossovers?

Time will tell.

Unknown said...

The atlantic monthly has a nice article on Gangnam Style.

3gyupsal said...

A novelty on youtube is hardly "making it" in the U.S.

I'm no Picasso said...

I agree that the West has issues with seeing Asian men as sexual, obviously, but I don't think that's really applicable to Kpop -- I think that the Kpop version of male sexuality in general tends to make Westerners uncomfortable. But I don't agree that the reason Psy's video is receiving attention is because he somehow represents an embarrassing Asian male caricature -- I think a lot of people genuinely like what they're seeing of him.

I don't know why anyone would expect it to be more than a one hit wonder.... I think the point at stake at the moment is just the one hit.

Joe -- Thank you, I saw it. Very interesting.

3gyupsal -- Cranky, cranky. Is that the sum total of what you have to contribute to the conversation? I guess it would depend on what your definition of "making it" is. Are you currently in the US? I heard it's getting radio play....

3gyupsal said...

Forgive me for sounding jaded. Psy did get some mention on CNN and fifty thousand hits on YouTube is admirable, but I'm skeptical that this is a serious thing. Korean news media makes it a point to highlight successes of Kpop abroad and read stuff into it. I don't hate kpop, and I don't really care if the bulk of Kpop artists are manufactured by record companies. Psy is a guy who is doing something on his own and is cashing in on it. But I get the feeling that people are reacting to Psy in a oh shit look at that crazy Asian guy way. On the other hand there is a severe lack of Asian singers in America that Asian American kids can look up to. A lot of Kpop stars are actually imported. Take Ailee, she is an incredible singer who wouldn't get a second look by an American record company so she has had some success this year in Korea. Now I don't think that anyone is more deserving of recognition than Psy, but it would be nice to see a serious singer get some to inspire the next generation.

I'm no Picasso said...

3gyupsal -- That was a great comment and I'm glad you came back to leave it. I agree. I guess for me it's just nice, after all of the times I've had to kind of fake-smile my way through hearing about how Americans now all know about the Wondergirls or whatever, it's nice for it to be something my people back home are actually aware of having even occurred. And it's been a little bit funny to me to see the bewilderment surrounding that from my coworkers and friends here.

아만다 said...

I am in the US. I haven't heard it on the radio, but it has hit several new outlets, where they all mispronounce "Gangnam."

Apparently listening to the song (because the "style" part is pretty clear, and they could just listen for "Gangnam style") is too difficult.

Gomushin Girl said...

@3gyupsal: Million. Not fifty thousand. Fifty million. Except now it's closer to seventy million. My aunt, a woman of relatively advanced age who has zero interest in any music that is not blasted from the windows of an extended cab pickup truck decorated with the Texas Lone-star and longhorns, asked me about the Korean dude who did the horse dance.

3gyupsal said...

Yeah thats what I meant fifty million. It was late and typed on an iPad. Sorry.