While I can’t lay claim to having been a loyal fan of his, I have always liked Psy. During the 4+ years I have spent listening to K-pop, Psy essentially has played a role similar in scale to the movie trope of a ‘That Guy’ actor–I didn’t make a concerted effort to seek him out as an artist, but if I were to run across a music video of his or a picture of him performing in thigh-high stockings and elbow-length gloves, I would go, “Huh, I like that guy.”
My interest went beyond the simple amusement of seeing a zaftig Korean man fearlessly performing in skimpy Girls Generation cast-offs. In his funny antics, I sensed a level of humor and an awareness within his self-mockery not typically present within (at least in mainstream) Korean pop. I found it extremely appealing.
So when “Gangnam Style” hit the Internet like a tidal wave, and word of the video quickly spread, I found myself feeling not so surprised by the sudden popularity of the catchy club-banger with the hottest funny-looking dance since the Macarena. Interestingly enough, though, my friends were.
My Korean-American friends can’t understand Psy’s growing notoriety or why, out of the entire candy-coated catalog that is Korean pop, that this is the song to strike the hearts and minds of Americans? It seems simple enough to me. A staggering percentage of information is dispersed by social media, and Psy’s MV has all the hit points of a successful viral video: humorous non sequiturs, a silly pervasive theme (the horse dance), a charismatic focal character and, as an extra bonus, an exotic “otherness” brought from the video originating in another country and sung in its native language.
Korean media has hailed Psy as a Hallyu Hero, but does all this attention merit any more significance than the 389,468,576 covers of “Call Me Maybe” or daily videos of baby animals caught in various states of adorable? Should my friends have been surprised? Should I? Should anyone?
The extent of Psy’s accomplishments are thus far impressive, with ‘Gangnam Style’ topping charts on iTunes while becoming a serious contender in taking Carly Rae Jespen’s cover video crown. America appears to like it and Korea loves it, not purely because it is a damned good pop song (although that’s a good enough reason), but because it is an honest, genuine crossover of Korean music that is appealing to everyone. No translating, no westernization is needed.
Psy has explained the satirical message of his video in a few English interviews, but the explanation is not necessary for enjoying ‘Gangnam Style’. The lyrics “Hey, sexy lady,” offer no reflection of that. Neither does the wacky video. The combination, however, results in a medium that is simple, engaging and effective in drawing a non-Korean into Psy’s world and making them feel as much a part of it as do South Koreans.
Backtracking to Psy and his recent bout with English media: It is truly impressive to see him calmly and coolly navigate American interviews when it is clear, by his own admission, that it was never part of his promotional plan. In this instance, one can begin to understand the intensity of the excitement emanating from his homeland. The last several years have borne an increased worldwide awareness of K-Pop and Korean entertainment, in general. In the case of Korean pop music, the powers-that-be have repeatedly tried to introduce and endear Americans to their widely popular “idols,” with each successive attempt chipping away at the invisible blockade between the East and the West.
Still, for Korean music industry professionals, this unpredicted “Gangnam” craze is likely not only blowing their collective minds, but also causing them to reassess reliable marketing methods they have been utilizing for years. Perhaps, in the end, the best way to get people to care is to act like you don’t care at all. The K-Pop music industry certainly cares–very very much. They care enough, in fact, to ride Psy’s wave until it crests during what may be their best chance of finally breaking through to shore. As far as surprises go, that wouldn’t shock me at all.