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Gangnam Style

Gangnam Style is a song by 34-year-old South Korean rapper Psy. Its music video was released on July 15, 2012, featuring a unique horse-riding dance in a comical portrayal of people living in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The video quickly went viral around the world and in late October became the most liked video in YouTube history. It inspired a spate of global parodies.

NewsHong Kong

Gangnam Style: loved by America for all wrong reasons

Pop star Psy's video plays well with West for portraying Asia as a non-threatening entity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 2:56pm

The Chinese author Mo Yan may have won the Nobel Literature Prize, but the most popular, talked-about and imitated Asian artist of the moment in the United States is a pudgy South Korean guy with a goofy dance by the name of  Psy.

Gangnam Style, the music video in which Psy shows off his hilarious, or embarrassing - depending on how you look at it - horse-riding dance skills, has been viewed more than 420 million times so far on YouTube. It has been shared on the internet by such celebrities as Britney Spears and Tom Cruise, and featured as a news item on CNN International and in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Harvard Business Review and Foreign Policy.

The usually level-headed Los Angeles Times dubs it "one of the greatest videos ever uploaded to YouTube". And in the not exactly unbiased opinion of the UN's secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon  - a fellow South Korean - Gangnam Style is a "force for world peace".

I was never one to believe the hype. Yet, as I checked out the video on YouTube, I had to ask myself, "is this the same video everyone is so excited about?"

The message behind Psy's performance in what's supposed to be Seoul's Gangnam district  are open to interpretation, but what I see is a slightly clumsy, somewhat ridiculous Asian man making a spectacle of himself. Whether resting his head on a man's shoulder at a sauna, bouncing around on a tour bus of seniors, or sitting on a toilet with his pants down, Psy is anything but cool.

But perhaps that's exactly why US viewers find the rapper, with his extraordinarily stupid-looking dance move, so endearing. Like the Chinese-American William Hung, who gained fame in  2004 after his off-key rendition of Ricky Martin's hit song She Bangs on the TV show American Idol, Gangnam Style reinforces fixed ideas some Westerners have about the assumed (and certainly untrue) ineptitude and humdrum squareness of Asians.

I have no doubt that when Psy made Gangnam Style, he had not the slightest intention to please a Western audience by pandering to racial prejudices. But artists, especially pop artists, are often loved for all the wrong reasons. The most interesting thing Psy has done in Gangnam Style - the  satirising of standard K-pop tropes - is lost on the average Western viewer. If Psy is indeed the first Korean pop star to break out in the US, he has achieved that status by accident.

At a time when Samsung is going head-to-head with Apple and showing genuine signs of overthrowing its dominance of the global mobile phone market, it wouldn't be hard to imagine how the comical, non-threatening Psy - who seems more eager to please than ready to compete - could put American viewers at ease.

That  Psy isn't exactly Mr Cool may also give them a false sense of superiority.

This gives the American people reason to entertain the comforting thought the yellow peril won't be coming any time soon. Perhaps the UN secretary general is right after all.


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This article is now closed to comments

I have to disagree with ljackson. There is "…nothing strange…" about the success of Gangnam Style. GS is successful because it is a GREAT POP SONG with universal appeal. The proof lies on the Web that is filled with literally thousands of videos emulating it. Indeed, some of these videos are from prominent artists like Ai Wei Wei, who can hardly be considered a "White Man". Right now musicians from around the world (many from the "West") are trying to imitate PSY's formula and it is not difficult to imagine a day when American teenage girls will be empowered by the camaraderie of Girl's Generation and American teenage boys will emulate G-Dragon's flow and swagger. I'm afraid it seems much of the hand-ringing regarding PSY's success has little to do with Caucasian attitudes towards Asians but more to do with Asian jealousy and anger towards a South Korean who had the temerity to succeed where others have failed and in the process became the face of Asian popular culture. The K-Pop machine has worked very hard in recent years and is now reaping what it has sowed.
White men will give various reasons as to why they love PSY, but the main reason is the video. White men love to see Asian men as comic relief, as something to laugh at, while they love to see Asian women as sex objects. The video accomplishes both. There is nothing wrong with PSY's video, but the popularization of his video and song is strange considering the number of quality Asian acts over the decades.
Fact is, white men are so racist, they'd rather die than see an Asian man as a sex symbol. They don't like seeing other men with any women, as shown by the casting in Hollywood movies and TV shows. They'll give excuses and reiterate outliers over and over again like the 2 posters before me, but statistics don't lie.
Calm down Perry! Westerners love PSY's Gangnam because he sends up a global, not just asian/korean/gangnam district, bogus culture of "cool" and bling which our media businesses ram down our throats the rest of the year round - Brits of a certain age will remember Bennie Hill's "Ernie" - the fast milkman in the west - presumably west hounslow, in London UK - Yanks loved Bennie Hill too, many Brits may shudder at the memory of his TV shows - but it was another goofy song that captured the public's heart - we all need a bit of refreshing nonsense from time to time
Speaking for my fellow 312,000,000 Americans I can a assure everyone that PSY's popularity has more to do with talent and hard work than any racial stereotype. Contrary to the above text, "Gangnam Style" has done well because it has a great hook and a silly dance that can move wedding receptions around the world. The fact that it deftly satirises the song-and-dance routine originated by Bugsy Berkley and Motown is also fun but only relevant in University coffeehouses where doctoral candidates look for dissertation material. From what information I have read on the subject, K-Pop artists work incredibly hard to hone their craft much in the same way that James Brown would have fired a drummer for missing even one beat. The more important question here in Hong Kong is why HK artists, who are so familiar with music from the US and UK, are unable to attain the same level of success. Racism can never be an excuse for mediocrity.


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