It’s now 3 years later and I like K-pop equally as much as the next Korean teenager. The only difference is that I’m not a 15 year old Korean girl. Regardless, I can sing all the English parts of any K-pop song, and I can recognize bands in pictures and song titles on the radio.
Since living in Korea, I have noticed something appealing about K-pop music. The songs are certainly catchy and the stars are beautiful and glamorous. The Wonder Girls attract fans with their adorable smiles, while the ‘flower’ boys from 2PM have chiseled bodies. They are great dancers and decent singers and their live performances are larger than life.
To add to this, K-pop stars have unique style. Each group has adopted a specific look and each member has a persona. Think: the Spice Girls or Backstreet Boys from the 90’s. Those pop singers became superstars and fans all over the world were hooked on Nick Carter’s innocence and Geri Halliwell’s spiciness. In fact, I still sing the Spice Girl’s song “Wannabe” at Norebang. But, I might be the only one. As time wore on, the English boy/girl pop band faze faded and fans moved on to favor other types of music.
In Korea however, K-pop has remained for years now and its popularity is growing. Unlike the fan base of NSYNC, which were mostly adolescents, K-pop is loved by everyone, young and old, men and women. People identify with Rain’s rags to riches story, and seek to emulate the unique, outrageous style of 2NE1 and G-Dragon.
Today, the wave is washing up all over the world, thanks in part to PSY. On July 15, Korean pop artist and rapper, PSY released his single “Gangnam Style”. As we all know (there are currently 675,600,000, views on YouTube, so if you haven’t seen it yet you need to click here), “Gangnam Style” has reached all corners of the globe. The media is blowing up over PSY: Where did he come from? What’s ‘Gangnam Style’? How do you do the dance?
But more importantly, how did PSY manage to captivate world audiences and does K-Pop have the international appeal to last?
Just last night, I was having a drink with some friends. The conversation turned to PSY and K-Pop because we all curious about PSY’s fame. My Korean friend can’t quite believe it, “PSY was just a silly guy in Korea. We all knew what his style is like. We never thought about him.” It is true that PSY has been a popular K-Pop artist for over 12 years but it is only now that he (his song and video) is recognized by others outside of Korea. My Canadian friend attributes PSY’s fame to his looks and humour style. PSY isn’t good looking. That makes him accessible around the world because we can all relate to normal looking people.
As well, every culture understands the humour behind “dressing classy and acting cheesy”. As PSY says, “My goal was to look uncool until the end. I achieved it.” (Yahoo! News) One can’t help but laugh at old people rocking out on a tour bus, a little kid busting out dance steps or a man in yellow suit taking himself too seriously. Perhaps the meaning behind the lyrics is lost to foreigners but the parody behind the video isn’t.
Forbes magazine attributes PSY’s fame to the dance which is “easy to do badly but hard to do well”. People feel drawn to give the dance a try and then they become determined to learn it. As well, Forbes mentions the songs intergenerational appeal, which, as mentioned, is already a mark of K-pop popularity in Korea.
Last week I attended a conference called MU:CON about the Korean/Asian music industry. The speaker, Ted Chung senior partner of Stampede Management and Cashmere Agency, brought up how artists can transcend cultural barriers, as PSY has done. Chung has helped Far East Movement, the all Asian American electro-pop group, tap into the American music industry. He has been a success; in Nov 2010 the song, “Like a G6”, hit number 1 across billboards in American and countries around the world, including South Korea.
Chung first points out that “there is no formula to gain popularity” and that sometimes trends soar. This explains how K-pop has seemingly taken off in a moment, albeit possibly fleeting. The manager of Big Bang, the Korean pop sensation, echoes this notion when he wondered, “’Why I am suddenly getting letters from Argentina? Should we be going there?’” (Time Magazine, Sept. 17, 2012). But Chung focuses on lessons from psychology and says that Artists’ international success is not purely random, especially if they plan on being a lasting hit.
Interculturalism, a concept that applies more in the United States and other western countries that are melting pots or mosaics (whatever you want to call it) of cultures, is a key to understanding how artists have or can move beyond their native Asian fan base and remain triumphant in the west. Chung claims that in an intercultural setting like the USA, groups will inevitably engage in cultural exchanges. During those times a dialogue ensues where both parties seek out commonalities. Once this occurs, the groups fuse their commonalities and they merge. Chung maintains that artists must be able to partake in organic cross-cultural dialogues with diverse groups in order to create a genuine fusion between fans and their music. This fusion is based on similarities rather than differences.
PSY has done this with his video, “Gangnam Style”. As discussed, his video is funny to people around the world because we can relate to being uncool and cheesy. PSY’s video is unifying. A North American or European watching PSY’s video is not focused on the Korean people or lyrics but rather on the hilarious dance and likable tune.
So will PSY last? Can K-Pop make it around the world? One article in Forbes Magazine says that PSY will need to produce an English album in order to preserve his fame in the west. Time Magazine agrees and says that K-pop artists today, “to ensure the broadest appeal”, have hired “English-speaking talent and European and American song-writers”. Luckily for PSY, Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber and Carley Rae Jepsen’s manager, was immediately interested in him. Schoolboy Records a division of Universal Republic Records, Braun’s label, just signed PSY. PSY was thrilled by the deal and said "For all us Koreans, it is a dream to break the American market with songs in our own language. It's going to be history for my country if I can." If not, he will only be the man with the most YouTube hits in history, an impressive feat regardless.
From now on, fans, like me, wait with anticipation to see if the wave will keep crashing. If it does, it will surely flood the world.
Photos from: http://www.ygfamily.com
Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.