PSY’s catchy “Gangnam Style” is an Internet sensation. He boasts the most “liked” video in YouTube’s history, and the only Korean-language song to reach number 1 on the iTunes chart. But why Gangnam Style?
Gangnam Style is not an unusual video, and to narrow down the field-of-view a bit, it’s certainly not unusual in Korean pop music. Colorful, amusing videos with catchy dance moves and slick music production are all staples of the genre. Artists like G-Dragon and Girls’ Day have been putting out similar videos for years without even the slightest blip on the radar of Western pop culture. As far as the song is concerned, label-mates 2NE1 and Big Bang have released pop hits that are nearly identical in style. This is not to denounce PSY’s accomplishment, but to establish a premise for discussion.
There is only one distinctive quality that PSY possesses that is lost on all other similar Korean performers – Korean performers, rather notoriously, are ridiculously good-looking.
Picture for a moment a PSY that is handsome and chiseled. Would the video have been as much fun? Would the video have been as silly? The physical appearance of processed, mainstream-media performers is so off-the-charts that it rather crushes the ability of audiences to relate. Another problem with that reality is it creates an impression that good looks are a vital goal and are necessary for happiness. When PSY shows up, looking like an average Korean guy but shining as a beacon of pure happiness and reverie, this creates a beautiful, hopeful irony.
However, there are important gender and racial factors that I can’t help but notice, and they put a bad taste in my mouth. For one thing, Asian men are overlooked as sex symbols in American pop culture. Korean pop star Rain’s biggest claim to fame in American media was his joke feud with Stephen Colbert, not his oozing sex appeal as the star of Ninja Assassin. Korean pop titan Se7en’s attempt at the US market was completely ignored. Also, to focus on gender, Jenna Marbles has a huge push on YouTube because of her looks. It seems that, when it comes to YouTube, an average-looking man has a better shot, while a woman should be physically ideal.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in this discussion, but it’s something I’m going to keep an eye on from this point forward.