Gangnam Style

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.