Western stereotypes may explain Japan’s Psy-lence

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Amid all the excitement, analysis and general horse-dancing hoo-haa over Korean musician Psy’s smash hit “Gangnam Style,” one story that has provoked a certain amount of head-scratching among fans is the song’s relative lack of success in Japan.

Brian Ashcraft produced a good summary on the website Kotaku of how audience expectations and music industry practices here — as well as Psy’s own promotional priorities — may have left Japan out of the loop. As with many discussions of pop music in Japan, however, the focus on Japan’s quirks and peculiarities once again leaves it looking like the loner at an international pop party.

But perhaps in understanding why the song hasn’t been such a hit in Japan, it might be a good idea to take a hard look at what made it such a hit in the West.

“Gangnam Style” ‘s perfect storm of a catchy tune, thumping beat, easy-to-learn dance routine and sense of humor is clearly reason enough to enjoy the hell out of the song, but it’s far from the only K-pop song to mesh those attributes. Writer Max Fisher made a strong case in The Washington Post on Oct. 18 that part of “Gangnam Style” ‘s success in the West has been the way the quirky, self-parodic content flies in the face of the desperately earnest, martially drilled perfection that characterizes many other Korean artists.

Phrased the way it is, Fisher’s argument provides a nice opportunity for Westerners to pat themselves on the back and order another round of free-thinking individualism, but there’s a more awkward point lurking in the shadows about the kinds of Asian celebrities the West is willing to embrace.

Beyond Girls’ Generation, T-ara, Wonder Girls, Rainbow and their cyborg pop clones, there is plenty of personality, individuality and self-awareness among South Korea’s pop elite. Psy’s YG Entertainment labelmates G-Dragon and T.O.P both balance the teen-heartthrob status that comes with their positions as key members of boy band Big Bang with a visual sense of the absurd and a keen edge of self-parody (fellow Big Bang members Daesung and Seungri make cameo appearances in the “Gangnam Style” video, in which they get blown up by Psy). YG’s current girl-group stars 2NE1 have recently forced their way onto the Japanese charts with a similar brand of brash, gaudy, self-aware pop.

But it’s Psy who is the first Korean artist that the West gathers to its collective heart, while Japan stands by nonplussed, and I have to wonder if a lot of the reason for “Gangnam Style” ‘s Western popularity still boils down to, “Hey, look at the funny little Asian man dancing!” (This was essentially the gist of a sketch on comedy show Saturday Night Live that parodied “Gangnam Style” on Sept. 15. Psy also made an appearance in that sketch.)

It’s an awkward area to go into; no one likes to think of themselves as prejudiced. However, even if you’re not, mass media still wields influence on what society collectively considers cool. So think for a moment: How many genuinely “cool” Asian celebrities are there in the West? I don’t mean subcultural or art-house cool, so scrub Cornelius and Tony Leung off your list. I’m talking about Asian stars in the Western mainstream whose image is something people aspire toward and seek to imitate.

This is the real challenge for any pop star, either Korean or Japanese, looking to make it big in the West: To make an Asian identity not just hip, but actually straight-up, mainstream cool.

To do this, one thing that needs to happen is for the Western media to get beyond portrayals of Asians as “exotic” or “crazy” and accept Asianness as part of the normal color of the entertainment world. TV and film have been doing a better job than music in this regard, but even so, from Hollywood to the Royal Shakespeare Company, actors with Asian backgrounds still complain of being stereotyped in roles.

Musicians can utilize stereotypes as long as they aren’t restricted by them. Unlike an actor, a musician’s identity is constantly at the forefront of what they do. They have no option to subsume themselves in a series of roles. They must play themselves 24/7, and they often only have three or four minutes to make their point. Being able to draw on an audience’s shared understanding of certain stereotypes and cultural signifiers allows artists to give viewers a handy shortcut to the image they want to present of themselves. Gender roles, fashion tribes and character archetypes are all fair game.

An artist’s ethnic background is one of the richest arenas for them to mine, but only if the audience can share and relate to it. While the U.S. attitude to “Gangnam Style” can basically be characterized as an impressed yet mystified, “Dude, WTF!?! That’s crazy!” Japan, so often on the receiving end of such comments itself, is familiar enough with the tropes on display that audiences here don’t see anything so “crazy” about it. They get it, but they just can’t use its weirdness as a hook.

Psy has done a lot in ensuring that millions now know that South Korea even has pop music, but he may also have just made it harder for other artists to follow him. While Japanese fans continue to enjoy a relatively diverse range of Korean artists, from this point forth, the vast majority of Americans and Europeans will have their preconceptions of any new Korean acts colored by “Gangnam Style.”

In the end, Western success for Korean or Japanese artists is not going to come with a lone novelty hit, no matter how catchy, sitting atop the charts like some kind of Asian “Macarena.” It’s going to be built off the back of a variety of singers and groups hovering around the Top 20 and getting played over montage scenes in teen dramas, or teenage girls in the West going into their local hair salons and asking for “a Sandara Park.” Against this background, a real star with wide-reaching cultural cachet and genuine influence might emerge, but it’s debatable whether the West is quite ready for it yet. One thing’s for sure, I can’t wait for Psy’s next single.

Other Music this week