I feel obligated to post about a music video from Korea that has become a viral hit in the United States, having even received a few e-mails to do so. Especially since I posted a pretty harsh reaction to what has been up to now hailed as Korean pop's greatest apparent success on the big American stage, the Girls' Generation debut on David Letterman, I feel especially obligated to follow up with a reaction here.
Actually, since I'm in dissertation-writing mode these days, and crunching aspects of Korean popular culture through a theoretical lens, particularly with the film Sopyonje and the national nostalgia for traditional culture that it both sparked and personified, I'm going to simply preface this by lifting wholesale a section that I wrote for my dissertation prospectus, which I tell people now actually begin quote predicted” the popular obsession with Korean mass cultural products.. Now, I'm stopping myself on the for head all the more because that little prediction came true. I still remember talking with another Berkeley graduate student colleague in the driveway of my Oakland house for a couple hours one night, a woman who was in the department of ethnomusicology and has gone to literally write the book about Korean popular musical forms. we were talking about different aspects of how cool Korean music was, and I actually threw into the conversation my opinion about how Korean American identity had defined itself a the "vanguard" of of a way of being Asian-American, one that had suddenly been imbued with a new kind of swagger, a new kind of “cool.” This formed the kernel of a paper prospectus I prepared for the Association of Asian American studies (AAAS) yearly conference, and I was accepted on a panel, but being a poor graduate student, ended up not going and missing a pretty good opportunity to stake my flag in the sand well before anyone was talking about Korean pop culture as being cool outside of Korea. I still remember my idea that Korean pop music or film being met with suspicion and doubt, and my original reasons for believing that Korean popular cultural products could find purchase overseas still remains unchanged, centering around the idea that Korean cultural products will either flop or fly based on their own inherent merit, as well as on context and timing. let me just cut-and-paste here to get this post moving:
As anyone who has lived through the years of identity politics of the 1990s knows, the influence of what I call “iconic multiculturalism,” which overwhelmingly defined culture in its most reductionist forms – food, fan dances, linguistic ability, Africa pendants, and other icons - set the stage for a generation of Asian Americans, many of them Korean Americans and others who are the legacy of their parents’ arrival in the large wave of the late 60s and early 70s. This was the heyday of reductionist Afrocentrism, arguments about so-called PC terminology, essentialist assertions of inherent cultural difference, and the multicultural debates which were the reaction to these signs of fracture within the understanding of what it means to be “American.”
Korean Americans remain a telling example, and are indeed the vanguard of a new Asian American culture, as Korea itself suddenly asserted not only a mass popular culture which Korean Americans suddenly found quite acceptable to their American palates, but also a new desire to preserve and define Korean identity itself. This was and is a desire shared by young Korean Americans hoping to define a “culture” and identity for the first time as individuals and a young ethnic group. It is no coincidence that at the same time, across an ocean of distance and culture, both Koreans and Korean Americans of this generation are engaging the same issues of culture and identity against a seeming torrent of rapid change, disconnection, and a feeling of cultural loss.
At the time, I was quite interested in the then recent phenomenon of Seo Taiji and the Boys' having brought the then new genre of so-called “gangster rap" to South Korea. ground zero of this was a track on their 4th album, entitled Come Back Home." what had impressed me about that particular song was just how adept the group was at not nearly mimicking and aping the stylings of the group Cypress Hill, but at really somehow making that new style truly something of their own, at the same time making Korean rap and the language itself somehow gel naturally into something so good and organic that one can't blame Korean middle school kids around that time for not thinking that they had made it up themselves. even to this day, if you play a Cypress Hill track before listening to the Korean hit song "Come Back Home," it's surprising how much the staccato Spanglish and Ebonics fit well with the Korean language, not to mention the specific high-pitched vocal tones of the lead rappers in both groups, along with the secondary rappers in both groups, both possessed of wilder, more forceful baritone delivery.
My argument at the time revolved around the idea, painfully obvious to me as someone who thinks about institutions, social structures, and the power of forces larger than any individual's power to control, was the fact that South Korea is, and has been for long time, a cultural colony of the United States. Once you can accept this pretty obvious fact and get over unnecessary attachments to national pride, you might be able to buy into what I call the “apt pupil” model of South Korean cultural production. It pretty much goes like this: pretty much every genre of popular music today in South Korea is simply the Korean analogue to the very same genres that are popular in the United States. You can see this going all the way back to the 1980s and before, since when disco and the "new wave" were popular in the US, they were popular back here in Korea. When glam rock and heavy metal were popular in the US, Korean stylings of the same genres were popular in Korea, along with the appropriate haircuts and dress. When rap was busy bursting onto the scene in the American mainstream, it was also starting to enjoy some popularity in Korea, commensurate with the extent to which MTV and most white people started liking it. That's why the 1st rapper most young Koreans ( who actually would you be so young anymore, actually) can remember is MC Hammer, since he became popular here, and as we all know in the US, was the 1st commercially successful-like-a-locomotive act in the US -- remember Hammer pants? I actually bought a CD of MC Hammer's “The Funky Headhunter" in a little music store on Cheju Island. around the time of this album, and MC Hammer's descent into embarrassing obscurity, is when Seo Taiji burst onto the scene with their single " come back home." and when it did, school children across the nation went absolutely bonkers. I really did feel it was like the Beatles' debut on American television. but it wasn't an invasion, but rather the 1st in a long line of Korean groups who would do the Seoul-LA shuffle, successfully learning the style of a popular group in the United States that had previously been hitherto unknown in Korea, perfectly adapting their style to the Korean language and culture, then debuting back home and single-handedly starting a mini revolution within their field. at the time, it occurred to me that the track in question was so good that it could be released back home in the United States, and indeed, most of the Americans I knew at the time really grooved on that song, even mostly forgiving what was obvious to most of us, that they had essentially stolen the style of our much loved, hard smoking Cypress Hill. in fact, I'm told that even Cypress Hill forgave them once they heard the track, Since it was just that damn good.
it goes like this. South Korea, as an “apt pupil” and cultural colony of the United States, is very good at not just mimicking and reproducing the form, as Japan had, but the Korean tendency is to adapt it to the Korean style, for mass Korean consumption. Then, once it bounces back across the Pacific, and Korean-Americans listen to it, it becomes cool enough to bump in the system of ones lowered Acura, or it can attract viewers outside of the target group, such as I found with African-American guys in the Bay Area who actually tuned into Korean cable television and watched the music videos, simply because they were cool enough to watch. simply put, to the outside American eye, these cultural products are familiar, at the same time they are inevitably exotic, as rap music videos that have all the right elements, such as booty shaking girls, swaggering rappers, and such, except they are Korean people doing it in Korean, which in itself can define a certain level of spectacle. so, South Korea is the perfect foil against which to bounce cultural products back at their originators, remain familiar enough to be palatable, yet adding enough difference to be exotic and new.
the reason I beat up on girls generation is because they are an example of something that isn't very familiar, or perhaps too familiar as something reminiscent of musical stylings and groups that have long gone to the wayside in American popular culture, not to mention being off code enough to be off-putting.
to me, it's perfectly obvious why the recent viral success of Psy's music video happened. First of all, it's a catchy tune constructive from the samples of songs that have already been popular in the United States, namely that "No Satisfaction" video, combined with the signature instrumental segue from"Pump Up the Jam."
and the song exists within the new genre of the electro-house craze so popular in clubs today. LMFAO is just as popular in the clubs in Seoul as they are anywhere else in the United States, and in fact just finished touring here. hey, they were in a frickin'n Super Bowl halftime show.
so, Psy makes a catchy tune along these same lines, adding his particular style of self-effacing goofiness as that silly horse dance. and frankly, it's a cute little dance to watch skinny Korean girls doing in formation.
So, when American kids see hot Korean chicks dancing this pretty goofy dance while a dorky looking Korean guy, who by any rights, shouldn't be getting checks as hot as in this video, sings a pretty catchy tune in Korean, one that sounds like something they would really get into in the local club, it has elements of both this familiar and the exotic, combined in just the right way and in the right amounts to make a video, shot with high production values, that people want to watch again and again, enough to become the new YouTube sensation.
but here's what it's not:
it's not the " recognition of Korean culture" that some pundits over here wanted to be.
it's not part of any “Korean wave” apparently sweeping through the United States.
it's simply the result of a perfect storm of factors resulting in a particular cultural product that found popularity in the venue for which it was particularly well-suited -- youTube. And that's it.
A lot of other vested interests are seeing this through their own glasses and filters, but the success of this recent video isn't any mystery, but continues to happen along the same general lines that any other notable pop-culture successes from Korea have followed. Here, just insert Old Boy or The Host into this model and it works just as well.