By Thomas Doherty
"A week ago, no one ever heard of the guy. Three million You Tube hits later and he's everywhere," marveled comedian Seth MacFarlane on Saturday Night Live.
The subject of his astonishment was, of course, the now ubiquitous Psy, who with his international mega-hit "Gangnam Style" did what neither Rain, nor the Wonder Girls, and not (so far anyway) Girls Generation have been able to do: break open K-pop wide and deep into the American mainstream.
The genre that for years has captivated the youth of Asia has finally burst furiously into the marketplace that matters most ― the USA, still the center stage for global pop culture. Psy's penetration of the homeland is not quite the 2012 equivalent of the British invasion that upended rock 'n' roll in 1964, but Korea's roly-poly pop star has planted the K-pop flag firmly on American soil.
I was slightly ahead of the "Gangnam Style" curve because Korean friends sent me the link to the music video while it was still clocking in at a relatively modest 1,000,000 You Tube hits. Forwarded, tweeted, and hyped by word of mouth, the song built slowly and steadily, helped along by a widely circulated article in the Atlantic magazine that explained the language and inside-Seoul references to Americans.
Yet even without translation, the song possessed all the requisite elements of a classic pop anthem ― an irresistible beat, a catchy chorus ("heeeyyy, sexy lay-dee"), and an accompanying set of goofy dance moves (the bow-legged, yippie-aye-yay horsey trot that should not be attempted by anyone over 40). The eruption of internet-fueled pandemonium ultimately propelled the song to number 1 on the iTunes download charts.
For Americans, much of the delight of surfing the "Gangnam Style" wave was the sheer joy of discovery, of coming unexpectedly upon a gem from a distant country. Rather than being force-fed the tune by saturation radio airplay, you had to seek it out yourself. Psy's video-song was that rare phenomenon in an age of media manipulation and choreographed hype ― an authentic and spontaneous pop-cult explosion.
Despite his name, Psy is not psycho; he's crazy like a fox. Seizing the moment, he hopped ― or galloped ― on a plane stateside and sashayed his way onto American television, as opposed to American computer, screens. On “Ellen,” the most popular afternoon chat show in America, he led Britney Spears through his dance steps, made stops at the Video Music Awards and the Today Show, and finally capped his victory lap with the true certification of having reached the very pinnacle of cool in American culture, an unannounced cameo appearance in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Spying Psy, the studio audience went bonkers.
Psy is an unlikely point man for the K-pop invasion. Most K-poppers are very young, very trim, and very, very cute. Psy looks a salary man who might be seen pushing back soju at a pojangmacha after a hard day at the office, not in Gangnam but in Jungnang. Being a solo act and pretty much a self-made man, he may not even be technically a K-popper, which helps explain why Americans have embraced him so fervently.
In America, pre-fab pop bands have been around since the Monkees, but the calculated, lockstep quality of a lot of K-pop is too robotic for American tastes. There is something soulless in the martial precision of the group dance moves, the synthetic repetition of the drum beat, and the assembly-line cloning of the interchangeable teen dreamboats ― all those androgynously pretty boy-toys and saccharine sweet girly-girls . By contrast, Psy is a wild card, a rugged individual making his own brand of infectious, rebellious fun.
Now, for Psy, comes the hard part. The history of American pop music is littered with one-hit wonders, singers who caught a lucky break, rode it to the top of the charts, and then wiped out, never to be heard from again. If he is not careful, Psy might become the Korean version of Kyu Sakamonto, the Japanese pop singer who scored a huge hit with "Sukiyaki" in 1963 and promptly vanished from the American radar.
He needs to answer the age-old show business question: "What do you do for an encore?"
The writer chairs the American Studies Program at Brandeis University and teaches in the International Summer School at Korea University. His email address is Doherty@brandeis.edu.