Now that Gangnam Style has hit its saturation point, it's time for America's culture writers to figure out what it is about this fancy, chubby Asian man dancing around on his invisible horse that makes our hearts go soft and our legs go wild—because clearly it can't be just that this song is really, really catchy. "Gangnam Style" has given culture writers the all important news peg they were searching for: a reason to talk about Korean Pop music—a phenomenon that's generated the country and its record labels millions and millions of dollars, yet until "Gangnam," barely put a dent into American pop psyche. So what is it about this "dress classy, dance cheesy" phenomenon that has captured American hearts? Well, here are a few theories floating out there (note: we by no means believe fully in a single one of these theories):
You Might Be A Creep
"You think you love them, but then you see Tiffany point directly at you and wink, and everything else that exists in the world just disappears," is one of the quotes from a K-Pop forum which Seabrook runs with in his piece in The New Yorker this week. Instead of taking a stab at "Gangnam", the main focus of Seabrook's article is Korea's mega girl groups like Girls' Generation (there are nine members of this band, right) and The Wonder Girls, and the grown men that are attracted to that type of errr...music. "Standing beside me was Jon Toth a twenty-nine-year old white guy who had driven twelve straight hours from New Mexico," writes Seabrook, trying to paint the picture that grown men who will travel half a day and cross state lines to see a Korean girl group they like aren't creepy. In between lines like "when they wear hot pants, it’s to display the gams, not the glutes," and being called "Uncle Pervy" by his niece, Seabrook adds, "I might not know how much I loved these girls, either. 'Listen boy,' Tiffany coos at the outset of Gee. ... And she tilts her head to the side and flashes her eye smile—the precise crinkle in the outer corner that texts her love straight 2U." Lines like that should be avoided no, not just because of the awkwardness of having an older white man commenting on the attractive eye shape and wink of an attractive Asian woman, but rather, it's not helping the narrative that liking these bands is completely earnest.
You're a Cynic
"What makes 'Gangnam Style' unique is its acerbic, self-aware edge, which is something of a novelty in earnest, unsarcastic K-Pop," Hsu wrote in his cultural think piece on the phenomenon. So, according to Hua, liking PSY is actually akin to not liking the production and glossy packaging of traditional K-Pop. It sounds like it's not unlike America's first dalliance with Eminem and Lady Gaga to an extent—liking him for being a sarcastic riff on pop music even though they are pop music. Hua writes:
Gangnam, as many have pointed out, is an actual place, a style-obsessed, nouveau riche neighborhood of Seoul that Psy is simultaneously saluting (kind of) and mocking (mostly). Not quite a call to class warfare, but when you’re not from Gangnam, maybe satire, irony, and swagger are the only strategies left to you.
Satire, irony, and swagger? From lyrics that we might not even understand? Damn.
You Might Be Engaging and Perpetuating an Asian Male Stereotype
"PSY fits right into the mainstream-friendly role of Asian male jester, offering goofy laughs for all and, thanks to PSY’s decidedly non-pop star looks, in a very non-threatening package," writes Refresh, giving us the first genuine-feel bad moment for liking the guy who gave us the horse-dance. Ref points us to the Asian pop stars like PSY who did make it big, one of them being William Hung, and how that might reflect American taste as a whole—that Americans only like Asian musical artists who are basically jokes and neglecting bands like Big Bang or artists like Rain for not conforming to an Asian stereotype of harmless guy you can laugh at. Ref writes:
PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” for all of the many reasons why it’s successful–from the creativity inherent in the music as well as the video that accompanies it to the charismatic man himself and his polished performances–is also wildly successful in the West in some small part due to the fact that he is one of the things the Western mainstream wants to see from its Asian people: a funny guy who doesn’t pose any threat of making Asian men seem sexually desirable.
Essentially, there are a lot of different theories of why we like PSY and K-Pop, and what it says about us. And Vulture, The New Yorker, and Racialicious aren't the only ones trying to kick PSY's tires (we featured a math nerd's take in our video roundup a couple of weeks ago), take our temperature, and figure out what it is about this fancy, chubby Asian man dancing around on his invisible horse that makes our hearts go soft and our legs go wild, because clearly, it can't be just that the song is just really, really catchy. And, obviously, PSY, invisible horse dance and all, is way, way easier to explain than the existential crises that is "Call Me Maybe."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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