You know Gangnam Style. You saw it on the Today Show. You saw it at the MTV Video Music awards. Or you're one of the 160 million people to have watched it online. Korean popstar Psy's Gangnam Style has just become the most liked video on youtube, surpassing LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" with its 1.57 million likes. Psy himself has just been signed by Justin Beiber's agent Scooter Braun, and the song is currently topping the itunes download chart. Psy's viral phenomenon has gone global, and fast.
This is not the first time Korean pop, or K-pop, has tried to make it big beyond Asia. In 2006, K-pop megastar Rain performed in Madison Square Gardens; the reviews were, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic; The New York Times dismissed the performance as akin to "a Michael Jackson concert from the 1990s," but without the charisma. Probably not the type of review for which the Korean idol was hoping.
The tsunami of K-pop flowing from Seoul has been much more successful closer to home. Having dismissed Japanese and Chinese equivalents J-pop and Canto-pop, the expertly-produced and fiercely marketed music of South Korea has become the soundtrack of Asian youth culture. From Jakarta to Yokohama, it is impossible to walk down any street without being confronted of images of G-Dragon, T.O.P, or JinWoon. If you don't know them, you won't see them; once you know, you won't stop.
Now, K-pop seems to be ticking down to some sort of global explosion, and the guy at the centre of the blast is Psy. An unlikely candidate for super stardom in any culture -- 34, slightly chubby and more than a little buffoonish -- he is particularly anomalous in the youth and beauty obsessed K-pop universe, where stars are groomed in special academies to become k-popbots, then cosmetically 'enhanced' with shaven jawbones, cartilage-sculpted noses and the ubiquitous blepharoplasty, or eyelid surgery. Psy, with his round face, ill-fitting tuxedo and clownish dance-moves, is somewhat unusual. And yet when he appeared live in Rockefeller Square recently, the reception bordered on delirium.
So what is it about Gangnam Style that has cemented its popularity in markets which have until now studiously ignored k-pop? Theories abound: maybe the globalisation of k-pop was an inevitability, and Psy just happened to be in the right place at the right time; maybe his Boston University education allowed him to tweak his video and image to make it magnetic, if still mystifying, to foreign audiences; perhaps his tongue-in cheek social critique of materialism has global resonance in an era which is questioning unthinking consumerism.
The lyrics and video are replete with satirical references to the exclusive lifestyle of South Korea's wealthiest, typified by the residents of Gangnam district. A 15sq mile area of Seoul, the area is so expensive that Gangnam alone is worth more in real estate terms than the entirety of South Korea's second city, Busan. In his video, Psy ridicules everything that typifies 'gangnam style,' from polo ponies and fast cars to country clubs and coffee-shops. Whilst highly amusing, Psy's satire is also highly codified; amongst those unfamiliar with the social tropes of Seoul the video is hypnotic purely in its nonsensical hilarity. This may explain why it is Psy who has finally cracked the global music market, rather than the expertly marketed offerings of k-pop's more aesthetically pleasing idols.
Although the diplomatic relationship between the US and South Korea is intimate, the apparently unstoppable rise of the Far East has and does create tension. As North America and Europe struggle to stay afloat in the global economic meltdown, Far Eastern economies such as China and South Korea are experiencing minimal fiscal impacts: exports of Korean products such as Samsung and Hyundai have rocketed while their American and European competitors plummet; China, for all its putative Communism, is the world's second largest economy; Indonesia is racing to poll position amongst ASEAN nations, spurred on by a boom in resources and trade.
Historically, the East has always posed a threat to Western hegemony, at least in the Western subconscious. These same tensions and anxieties to make their way into popular culture and a nation's collective subconscious; an ideological or cultural paradigm with the potential to unsettle established political power dynamics is inevitably perceived as a threat.
That is, until there appears a figure such as Psy. Rotund and ridiculous, Psy is as Korean as they come, and yet we can laugh along with him as well as at him. He knows it and, as evidenced by his cavorting at the MTV awards, is not afraid to play upon this double-edged appeal. Rain, Big Bang, Girls Generation- they were just too polished, too profitable, too symbolic of mutable power dynamics to be acceptable to Western popular culture. But in its whole-hearted embrace of Gangnam Style the West has opened the floodgates, and this time k-pop may prove to be unstoppable.