Admittedly, on the sliding scale of K-pop fan devotion I fall closer to the cynical side (well I am in my mid-freaking twenties – but that is for another piece). All the extra-terrestrial – sounding fan names, the fan colors yanked right from a paint swath at Home Depot (Pearl burgundy? I love you guys but come on); it all makes you shake your head in an amused, detached kind of way. Add in the ever-present cultural barriers and internet hive-mind thinking, and it’s easy to feel above it all. I mean, the N’Sync vs. Backstreet Boys Wars were so totally long ago, right? However, as I have since recognized within myself and other international fans, there is always the K-pop “bias”, the one beacon of light that keeps you from hanging up the Super Junior glow stick for good
I both love and fear for K-Pop Star runner-up and YG Entertainment rookie Lee Hi (이하이). I was terribly late to the K-pop Star train – despite the show’s popularity I was summarily distracted at the time but a voice like Lee Hi’s does not simply float in and out of your consciousness, it burrows itself into your brain and clamps down into your neurons, finally overtaking the central nervous system.
POWER. MUSICALITY. EMOTION. SOUL. These were the basic tenets of music that I grew up with along with a steady diet of Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Carole King. I have also grown to not expect these much of these musical values in Korean pop or mainstream music in general.
But against all odds Lee Hi’s voice manages to stir something deep in my soul from childhood; and better yet, K-pop is allowing her a forum to showcase what IT is that she has – something a little complicated, a bit ragged at the edges and primarily incompatible with their pristine pop formula.
Netizens have remarked that YG Entertainment could not be a better outlet for Lee’s talent. To their credit, YGE has spent considerable time and effort toward the promotion of her first single, 1,2,3,4 and fans of the entertainment company have stood behind her in an act of solidarity (to the tune of an M!Countdown debut win).
Yet, there is still the sense of Lee Hi as a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. I don’t profess to a super fan of any one K-pop singer or group but I do tend to enjoy fellow YG artists Big Bang and 2NE1 above other idol groups. The key word here being “idol.” This isn’t to take away from any of the hard work that YG or anyone in K-pop does – that is to be expected. But the word “idol” brings along with it certain connotations, one the image of not being a serious artist. That’s just the way it is, and if a Korean pop singer yearns to move beyond that, it’s going to take a serious reevaluation of their career choices.
Big Mama, may they R.I.P
What is distressing, is that YGE does attempt to brand itself as a kind of alterna-idol company and they have and always have had very talented people on their roster. However, powerhouse vocal group Big Mama is gone and disbanded, while singer Gummy’s scattered promotions are lackluster at best.
Add in the worrying rumors concerning Lee’s Kpop Star singing group SuPearls, and you have the expected outcome of a company whose odds don’t look to be in anyone’s favor but the breadwinners.
I won’t lie – the moment in Kpop Star where YG’s CEO Yang Hyun-suk tells 15-year-old Lee matter-of-factly that she needs to lose weight is depressing in its realism. Of course no one expects her to debut without a suitable makeover. And now she has it all: the hair extensions, the high-end make-up as well as a somewhat smaller build. Thankfully, her clothes are tailored well and age-appropriate and she still looks like a cute, teenage girl. More importantly, a cute, teenage girl that can sing her weave off. No amount of makeup can cover that up, and here’s to hoping that YG will never try.
Video courtesy of Mnet@Youtube
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.