By John Kim
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve seen Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video. Not only has it broken hundreds of millions of hits on YouTube, he’s made appearances on MTV’s VMAs, the Ellen Degeneres show, the Today show, Saturday Night Live, Ryan Seacrest’s radio show, and recently signed with Scooter Braun. Many in the Kpop industry have tried for years to break into the US. But even with dolled up, management-bred groups like 2NE1, Girls’ Generation, and Big Bang their efforts have fallen flat. Granted, there is a cult following by some loyal fans here in the US, largely by other Asian or Asian Americans, they’ve still never had as huge a following as Psy and have never been played on mainstream radio.
While the K-pop industry is left scratching their heads wondering how their groups failed where Psy succeeded, one fact seems to stand out: The imported Korean media that gets big in the US ain’t pretty. What gets popular in the US isn’t the polished, plastic-surgery shaped, attractive boy/girl bands and actors. It’s really the rough, the strange, or the comical that make it. Take Oldboy, the 2003 movie by Park Chan-wook. The hero of that film is played by actor Choi Min-sik whose rough exterior is a far cry from the pretty boy bands like Big Bang. Or take the movie “the Host,” another film whose main character, played by Song Kang-ho, whose appearance resembles more Psy than Asian pretty-boy.
This brings us to Psy. His video features such iconic scenes such as a man in a cowboy hat thrusting his pelvis while straddling Psy in an elevator, a zoomed out shot revealing Psy sitting on a toilet, a dance in a tour bus full of older Korean females, and a horse dance. These don’t ring of beauty or polish -things that an American audience might have a hard time relating to. But rather it rings of boyish quirkiness, comedy, and satire. And this is something we all can relate to.
I recently saw this interview video of another Korean group, “2NE1″ who is also attempting to break into the US music scene, and I can’t help but fear that they’ve already set themselves up for failure. They look good. They dance well. But if they were to take lesson from Psy, what they need isn’t more polish, but instead more character. Less attempts at allure and more attempts at honest expression. If Korean (and other Asian) media would move further from the pretty boy/girl band and toward the direction of Psy and these more rugged Korean stars, perhaps we’ll hear more Asian songs over the airways in the US.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A freelance website producer/developer, student of psychology, aspiring writer, I’m a recent transplant to Southern California and am passionate about Asian/Asian American issues.