Why Psy and not JYP?
I just watched Psy perform live in New York City’s Rockefeller Center on NBC’s Today Show, a venue usually reserved for the most popular of international singers.
I mean, you can’t get much more mainstream than that in the U.S. Wait. And the song just hit No. 1 in iTunes in 17 countries across the world. Wait again. Psy was just parodied in Saturday Night Live, reaching the pantheon of international stardom. This is getting ridiculous. Next, they will be inviting him to the White House and Buckingham Palace.
The problem is, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. I admit that the song is catchy, silly, and fun. Then again, there are a lot of catchy, silly, and fun songs out there.
One, the video is in Korean, not English; non-Korean speakers have no idea what he’s singing about except a little snippet of, “Sexy Lady.” Two, no offense, but Psy is not exactly eye-candy; in fact, he’s proudly anti-visual in the Korean pop culture where youth and good looks are regularly deified. Three, the video has no story that people can relate to; it’s not like there is a Susan Boyle or Paul Potts making people cry with their diamond in the rough stories. Four, despite what some analysts are saying, this video is not a social statement against the conspicuous consumption culture of Gangnam; I mean, can someone seriously tell me that there is a hidden social message in the utter randomness that is this video? Five, the whole context is strictly Korean; by that, I mean that it’s geared toward the Korean market entirely, featuring symbolism, scenes, and characters that would only be recognizable by Koreans or someone who has lived in Korea. Who in the world would get a kick out of Yoo Jae-seok in his yellow suit and Noh Hong-cheol gyrating unless you are Korean or can recognize them? It’s as inside a joke as you can get.
So, basically, a totally story-less, absolutely random, very Korean music video performed by an ordinary–looking 34-year-old Korean rapper of a rather rotund persuasion has taken the world by storm. Go figure.
Which is probably what JYP is mumbling to himself right now as he cries himself to sleep at night. I mean, he ran the Wonder Girls ragged throughout the U.S. opening for Justin Bieber and even managed to put himself on the cover of Billboard Magazine to get on the mainstream pop culture radar but didn’t even get a blip.
So why Psy and not JYP, when it actually should be the other way around? That’s the $64,000 question. Is it that celebrities such as Britney Spears have jumped on the bandwagon to provide the fuel to Psy’s rocket?
Dr. Ines Mergel, Assistant Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, provides this astute analysis in her blog: “This example shows that viral campaigns need the support of so-called network stars ― nodes in a network with a very prominent position who are connected to many other nodes. The messages are snowballing through the network and repeated (or retweeted and shared) over and over again.”
Mergel’s analysis, however, is missing one thing. Who built the bandwagon that the network stars jumped on? In other words, who provided that initial push of social media support (in terms of YouTube views, Tweets, and Facebook Likes, etc.) that got this video over the critical mass of global awareness that propelled it to its viral glory?
This video, right after its release, hit it big in Korea, which is not a huge surprise. But what was surprising was that the initial Korean popularity had enough social media reach and power to influence non-Asians ― in fact, Americans ― to begin noticing and liking the video. And once it resonated in America, it became a global phenomenon.
If we look at the global social network as a holistic system, we know that the U.S. is one of the key central nodes with the greatest number of connections and influence. Therefore, an American star almost inevitably becomes a star globally.
But what we just saw was that Korea’s social media footprint has gotten big enough to directly inject itself into America’s social media consciousness. Before, if you were a star in Korea, you were a star in Korea. Then it became; if you were a star in Korea, you became a star in Asia. Now, Psy has shown that if you are a star in Korea, you could be a star in the U.S., which means that you have a good chance of becoming a global star.
In other words, there had been enough social capital built up in the global social media system for K-pop ― with enough key nodes connecting between the two clusters (U.S. pop and K-pop) ― that Psy’s Korea-based social media popularity was able to cash in globally.
In a way, Psy was the recipient of all the hard work done by JYP, Wonder Girls, Rain, Se7en, and others who came and failed before him to hit it big in America. They might have not quite got there, but all of their efforts built up enough critical mass of awareness and enjoyment of K-pop within the social media system so that Psy was able to bounce over and make a huge splash.
So, the question isn’t, “Why Psy and not JYP?” The explanation really is: “Psy, because of JYP.”
The author lives and works in Washington D.C. He’s been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. His email address is Jason@jasonlim.net.