By Oh Young-jin
I have a confession to make about Psy, the Korean rapper whose “Gangam Style” is taking the world by storm, the most viewed video clip on YouTube this year, capturing No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Chart (when the paper went to press), topping the British music chart and having Britney Spears do a horse-riding dance and slapping her buttocks with gusto.
To be honest, I didn’t like the guy when “Gangnam Style” was released. As a matter of fact, I have never liked Psy, regarding him as an aberration from mainstream that shouldn’t last long.
As his song has gained global attention and triggered flash mobs around the world, I blended in with Psy lovers and pretended that I was one of them. I had some qualms but knew better than trying to shout above the Psy cheerers and have myself heard.
I had my reasons to pretend. I was happy to see “hallyu,” or the Korean cultural wave, turning into something that can last and be enjoyed by a greater audience.
It was less than a year ago when I confronted a couple of foreign friends of mine over the viability of hallyu to become part of global culture.
They were skeptical, pointing out that the enthusiasm shown by European and South American fans for young Korean singers reflected something happening on the margins of world culture. They said that hallyu was “never going to make it.”
Now with Psy fever gripping the world, I feel vindicated. I didn’t even bother to go after the detractors, by reminding them, “I told you so.”
During those pre-Psy days, I knew that something big was in the making but then I was a “closet” skeptic, being not completely convinced how it would pan out. In hindsight, I was as wrong as my expat friends in underestimating the power of hallyu, a cultural revolution.
Psy and “Gangnam Style” blew away any doubts I had.
Their popularity has provoked my sense of cosmopolitanism, making me think that Korea has finally found something bigger and deeper than mobile phones and automobiles to offer to the world.
The feeling was comparable to when I saw countless excavated rows of Qin Shi Huang’s terra cotta warriors during a trip to Xian, China, less than 20 years ago. It was an eye-opening experience not because it was a monumental sight but because it boosted my pride about things Asian.
But Psy was closer to my heart than China’s first emperor because we are compatriots living in the same era. I instantly felt that I couldn’t be patriotic and anti-Psy at the same time.
Then, I began to feel scared to see Psy becoming bigger than hallyu and “Gangnam Style” larger than Korea.
I thought Psy was supposed to act as a launch pad to help the world appreciate more genuinely Korean culture and more mainstream artists but he has outgrown that role and threatens to represent the core values of Korea that he is not.
Simply put, the guy has turned into the tail that wags the dog.
I have an issue with the vulgarity of the Psy culture. I don’t blame Psy. He has never been shy in saying that he represents Korea’s class-B culture. I agree that any pop culture is based on one vulgar element or another.
But Psy’s problem and, by extension, that of “Gangnam Style,” is that his whole gig is built on a falsehood ― there are few elements about him and his song that can be regarded as Korean.
For instance, the horse-riding dance is one of the most popular elements in his song that has little to do with Korea. We Koreans are not a seriously equestrian people, traditionally speaking, and the horse-riding population may be increasing nowadays but is not yet a popular sport.
With the horse-riding being so stressed in his song, I fear that people may think Koreans are descendants of Genghis Khan, whose solders roamed on horseback throughout the world on their expedition to conquer the world.
Plus, there is part of that dance that has you acting as if twirling a lasso over his head. It reminds one of an American cowboy on a cattle drive or in a rodeo competition. We Koreans are traditionally farmers, not ranchers, meaning that the dance has more to do with Americans than Koreans.
The start of Psy’s music video reinforces doubts about whether “Gangnam Style” represents Korean styles in any way.
The scene has a propeller-powered airplane trailing a banner saying “Gangnam Style” with Psy in shades looking up. We Koreans have a set of restrictions on the private use of airplanes because, among other things, of the technical state of war South and North Korea have been in for the past 60 years. The banner-trailing aircraft trick is not Korean.
I am not implying anything plagiaristic about Psy. I grant he has his own style but it has more to do with global pop standards than Korean standards. Is that good or bad? It’s hard to say now. I pause at that this time, believing that there’s bound to be another opportunity to visit the Psy issue.