Girls' Generation, a popular Korean girl group
Having been born and raised in Korea, I was always instilled with a strong desire to reject homogeny. Everybody already looked and dressed like me, so I felt my only way out was by breaking that cultural homogeny—this, for me, meant avoiding K-Pop as much as humanly possible.
It's difficult to give you a history of K-pop, especially when I know so little about it myself, but the K-pop we know today pretty much took off in the early 90s—right around the time I was growing up. I immediately hated anything sung in Korean, and turned to music that was anything but K-pop, finding what I could in my dad’s small and incomprehensible CD collection: The Cranberries, Smokie, Tchaikovsky, and Engelbert Humperdinck—don't ask about that last one.
Super Junior—this looks like waaaay too many members
There's more to the psychology of why I wanted to distance myself from Korean culture, which has a lot to do with my family moving back and forth between Korea and the United States and the racial identity issues I developed as a result. As I got older, I became more and more aware of my "otherness" in America, that sense of awareness reaching its peak in my late elementary and early middle school years, when I was living in Arizona.
I was never a victim of prejudice, but I was constantly overcompensating for my "non-Americanness" by exclusively listening to western pop music and studying English with a greater fervor than your average ten year old. When I was in middle school our family moved back to Korea. I continued to overcompensate because I think, in a way, I had developed a serious resentment of Korean culture. Even though my parents put me in an international school, everyone was Korean—I think from our graduating class of 77 people or so, there was only one non-Korean, and that really messed with my sense of individuality. You can imagine the teen girl histrionics: "How am I supposed to create my own identity when I'm drowning in a sea of sameness?!"
Similarly, K-pop very much thrives on this idea of sameness—it's like they're in the business of cloning identical looking girls and boys who are all beautiful, have shiny hair, and have mastered the art of winking. I found this sickening, and even more so that so many people were idolizing them. I remember all of high school thinking K-pop was the lamest shit ever and I despised the fact that my people—not just my classmates, but every person in Korea, it seemed—were so invested in something so idiotic. Of course, I made my own embarrassing musical choices too (we're not here to talk about that), but I think the thing about K-pop that really rubbed me the wrong way—and still does—is that it's less about the music and more about creating an army of perfect-looking girls and boys, usually with the help of plastic surgery (ehem), who have shit talent in music yet make millions and millions of dollars. Let's take a look at the popular girl group, Girls' Generation, for example. This group consists of nine members, which I find a little ridiculous. Why on God's earth do you need nine girls in one group when none of them play an instrument? It just doesn't make sense. I feel like all they do is amateur dance moves and smile and wink while wearing cute little dresses, and then everyone goes bonkers over them. I have yet to understand the allure.
Yo, put me on a treadmill for like a year straight and give me some dance lessons. I could do this, too… maybe.
K-pop is peculiar in that many of these young girls and boys are scouted, much like in a modeling agency, and they are put through an intensive training session, which includes dance lessons, a strict diet, and tips on how to act in front of the press. These groups aren’t formed organically by like-minded members who wanted to make music together and touch people with their songs or whatever; they’re hand-picked by trained idol seekers from big agency groups, and the selection process is largely based on their looks. Because the appeal of a K-pop group is their cuteness, they are asked to avoid anything that could be misconstrued as sexual. Not only do they evade sexual topics in their music but they are also trained by publicists to keep their love lives out of the media circuit. More Taylor Swift than Lady Gaga. While parents can feel at ease that their children aren’t listening to inappropriate music, are these idols really a good influence on Korea’s youth? If I was a teenage girl looking up to these size 0, plastic surgery dolls, I don’t know what that would do to my self-esteem.
What's even more astounding than the national obsession of K-pop is that it's starting to catch on in America. This piece isn't me telling you "I knew about K-pop way before you did"—because, to be honest, I probably know just as little as you do (or less, if you're a K-pop aficionado). This piece is about my speculations on the growing popularity of something so inherent to my culture that I have spent my whole life renouncing. K-pop started seeping over to America a couple years ago, but it immigrated with a bang with, as you know, the phenomenon that is "Gangnam Style" by Korean rapper PSY. The funny thing is, while most people credit his viral hit as the definitive K-pop crossover to the western world, PSY is not really K-pop. Unlike the girl groups or boy bands with caked on make-up and mousse, PSY is a portly Korean man well out of his teenage years. He’s not exactly teen idol material. In fact, PSY’s song is even a satire of the fashionable Gangnam lifestyle (Gangnam, if you don’t know, is a swanky district in Seoul where many of these idols and agencies reside).
I don’t even have to explain the video to you. You’ve all seen it, I’m sure, and if you haven’t, at this point, it’s fair to ask whether you live under a rock (in which case, I’m very impressed that you have landed on this internet page). The virality of this video—the dance, the production, the quirks and hooks—really speaks for itself when you consider the fact that most American viewers can’t sing along past the words “Gangnam style” and “hey sexy lady.” In fact, I’m sure most of those viewers didn’t even know what Gangnam was before the hit. Somehow, PSY’s breakthrough hit managed to transcend the language barrier. This song is extra funny to me because I used to hang out at Gangnam all the time and it was never really a posh experience for me like he makes it out to be. Maybe I just don’t hang out with the glamorous crowd enough. Here’s a photo I took at the Gangnam bus station two years ago while trying to go home at 11:30 PM (public transportation stops running around midnight and the hour between 11 PM and 12 AM turns into a survival of the fittest):
IRL Gangnam style
Truth be told, I hadn’t even heard of PSY until the rest of the world had, but once he was on my radar, he and “Gangnam Style” seemed to be everywhere: random bar conversations I overheard, American TV (Saturday Night Live, the Today show, etc), various YouTube parodies, and it even came up in a game of Charades recently (it was guessed immediately with the horseback riding gesture). Hell, PSY even made it onto the feline radar! (That’s when you know you’ve made it.) Seeing a Korean artist find such huge success in America seemed incredulous. But I must admit, after a moment of disbelief, I felt a wave of patriotic pride wash over me and I actually caught myself smiling from ear to ear while watching the video. “Gangnam Style” is not at all the kind of music I listen to—and I probably will never really enjoy beyond sheer amusement—but I was still so proud that my peeps were making it big here, because somewhere down the line I stopped being resentful and realized that I was and should be proud of my heritage.
Here’s where the tension between my pride and musical taste lies, though: “Gangnam Style” is obviously a funny video and song, but is that all non-Korean viewers were getting out of this? How many of the views and shares were “LOL look at this ridiculous Asian man” rather than enjoying it because it’s simply good? I even regretted the fact that the first real Korean music crossover to America wasn’t something more artistic, in the same vein that Korean films are starting to gain respect in the world of cinema (with directors like Chan-wook Park and Joon-ho Bong). But wait, who am I to say that this isn’t artistic? PSY’s “Gangnam Style” is, yes, hilarious, but it’s also incredibly self-aware edge and culture-conscious. And musically, it’s got an infectious hook—which I will admit to, even though I still can’t actually get into it. Well shit, it's far better than any of the other top 40 hits I've heard recently.
It's difficult to tell whether PSY has opened doors for other K-pop crossovers or has satirized it to a point where the doors are even tighter shut. Only time will tell, I suppose. PSY recently signed onto the label run by Justin Bieber's manager Scooter Braun, but I still question whether he is here to stay or destined to fizzle out as a funny one-hit wonder. Either way, we can look at "Gangnam Style" as the most viral musical moment of 2012. And as for the future of K-pop's expansion—who knows? While I am still very much repulsed by K-pop, I wouldn't be opposed to a bigger Korean cultural presence in America. Proud, maybe, even.
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