Like almost no other Americans, I was first introduced to PSY in the spring of 2011 on a road trip through the Republic of Korea’s South Gyeongsang province, from the port city of Busan to the mountainous countryside near Yangsan. I was coming to the end of two years living and working in South Korea, but was still a novice when it came to the often bewildering world of Korean pop-culture. Hearing PSY for the first time via his fifth album, I felt like I was belatedly jumping on the bandwagon. Fast-forward about a year and a half, and PSY has exploded in global fame, thanks to the viral sensation of the music video for his song “Gangnam Style,” off his newest (sixth!) album.
In the mad scramble to “explain” PSY to the masses, “Gangnam Style” has been dissected, examined, and subjected to a lot of reductive explanations in attempts to “understand” this new, strange phenomenon. But nature abhors a vacuum, and PSY did not emerge from one. By the time “Gangnam Style” blew up all over the internet, PSY, having had a number one hit in Korea with “Bird” all the way back in 2000, and having signed onto the massive Korean record label YG Entertainment in 2010, was anything but “underground” — an assertion that says more about the claimant’s cultural myopia than PSY’s actual celebrity status. What nobody seems to be talking about, though, is the reaction in Korea to PSY’s sudden fame — that is, Korea’s reaction to America’s reaction to PSY. I asked a number of Korean friends how they felt when seeing Britney Spears, Al Roker, et al. dancing to “Gangnam Style.” Journalist Jung Min Gyu told me, “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe my eyes.” Unlike the various “girl groups” who have made conscious efforts to break into the American market, relying heavily on their jaw-dropping good looks, “PSY… won the hearts and minds of people with his catchy beats and ridiculous dance moves.” He’s completely defied the mainstream trend of Korean pop music by pumping out hits whose success often relies on his very lack of Adonis-like looks.
While many in Korea are skeptical about how long PSY’s fame will last abroad, his popularity in The Land of the Morning Calm appears to be as solid as it’s been, well, for quite a while — long before “Gangnam Style” ever graced Western airwaves. His popularity with the university student generation in Korea is especially strong. With Daedongjae — Korean universities’ autumn homecoming festivals — quickly approaching, PSY is the number one most requested performer by students in South Korea. He’s been known for putting on a spectacular, “fourth wall” breaking live performance (somewhat analogous to the reputation of The Flaming Lips in America), footage of which is featured in his music video for “It’s Art.”
While K-Pop’s traditional reliance on physical appearance tends to reinforce a sense of division between performer and audience, PSY is an outlier in this sense; as alluded to above, his slightly-overweight average-guy appearance (in spite of his eccentric outfits) blatantly bucks this trend. One Korean friend told me, “With Wonder Girls [a popular and very beautiful five-member girl-group], for example, it’s hard to feel close to them. It’s hard to find a sense of commonality between us and them. In PSY’s concert everyone can feel very close to him. Everyone is involved, and the concert doesn’t divide the viewers and singer.” This sense of connection between Korea’s social groups, I think, is also emphasized in PSY’s video for the song “Right Now,” which connects white-collar workers stuck in offices and traffic jams to flâneur-ish youths waiting for a metro-train through a shared sense of bottled-up impatience that erupts into dance.
PSY’s sudden global fame has also thrust him into the position of cultural ambassador for South Korea. There has even been gossip in the Korean blogosphere about proposing PSY as an honorary ambassador for Korea’s claim in the Dokdo/Takeshima Island dispute with Japan. While simultaneously granting that PSY isn’t prepared for a position in the tortuous thicket of East Asian geopolitics, the fact that such gossip is extant attests to PSY’s newfound role. In spite of the Korean government’s recent attempts to boost tourism through advertising that relies heavily on images of “traditional” Korea, the onus has suddenly fallen on PSY to represent Korea to other nations. And while most viewers understand that “Gangnam Style” is satire, they have no image of the hardworking, hard-studying life that most Koreans endure. Of course PSY knows this, and never expected “Gangnam Style” to metonymically stand in for Korea, but right now the average American doesn’t have any other image (aside from that of a totalitarian hellscape of North Korea) to replace that which PSY lampoons in “Gangnam Style,” and that will be one challenge he will face as he moves forward with Scooter Braun and possible collaborations with Justin Bieber. It might sound silly, but with nationalist sentiments in East Asia cresting, it will be interesting to see what results from the tripartite tug on PSY between what Western audiences want him to be (a goofy Asian man), what Korea wants him to be (a representative of the nation), and what PSY wants to be (a musician).