Korean pop-star Psy’s video for ‘Gangam Style’ recently surpassed Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby’ to become the most watched YouTube video EVER, with over 840,000,000 views. Psy has appeared on Saturday Night Live and Ellen (two huge markers of success), I ran into several Psy look-alikes on Halloween, and countless parodies have been made, including the politically charged ‘Mitt Romney Style’ video.
It’s been interesting to hear the reaction to this Korean music video going viral from pundits and reporters here in the United States where, quite frankly, we tend to think we’re the best at this kind of thing.
For those of you who haven’t seen the video or don’t know much about it, ‘Gangnam Style’ is a comical pop song making fun of Seoul’s elite. It’s a goofy song with a good beat and a charismatic dancer/singer. It is what a hit pop song is all about. But it’s done something that not many pop songs from non-Western countries have done – it’s made a huge international splash.
One of my favorite reporting teams, NPR’s Planet Money, recently reported on the video’s success and what it means. They explain that this is the result of a calculated effort on the part of the Korean music industry over the past 20 years to develop a strong and competitive pop industry. As Korea continues to become increasingly competitive in the global marketplace when it comes to cars and electronics, so too are they developing their cultural exports. As reporter Zoe Chace succinctly puts it, “It’s what happens when a developing country becomes developed – an infrastructure to make and export culture develops too.”
For anyone in Asia or who follows Asian culture, Korean pop music (K-pop) is nothing new. The girl group Girls’ Generation, is just one of many who have gained huge recognition throughout the continent.
In Mongolia, where urban youth buy Korean clothes, emulate Korean hairstyles, and watch Korean films, Korean music videos were played on the music channels every bit as much as Mongolian and western videos.
However, the music market in the United States tends to favor a) songs sung in ENGLISH and b) songs produced in the west. And so for ‘Gangnam Style’ to be played on radio stations and featured on television programs is quite a leap.
But, not everyone seems so impressed. Conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly dedicated an episode of his show to trying to understand this trend. It seems ‘Gangnam Style’s’ popularity evaded him, and so he decided to deconstruct the appeal. It’s worth watching the 5 minute clip to fully appreciate.
What I think the root of the issue here is that it’s difficult to accept that another nation (an Asian nation, at that) might actually be competitive in the cultural marketplace. As Americans, we have come to accept that the entire world imports our culture. Sports figures, musicians, actors – their names and faces are known worldwide.
There’s some implicit sense of cultural superiority that accompanies this phenomenon. And now, as other nations’ music and film industries are becoming increasingly competitive here in the United States, it seems we’re losing a bit of that notion that what is produced here in the U.S. is obviously the best and should be consumed the world-over.
Korea has managed to do something that the Mongolian music industry is eager to accomplish. They have created an internationally recognized brand of music (K-Pop) that is now on the same playing field as pop music from Australia, Great Britain, and the United States. Granted, Korea has been working at this for decades and has the capital and man power necessary to make the leap from national to international marketing, two things Mongolia is lacking. Still, the K-Pop craze is inspiring to the Mongolian pop industry as musicians and producers develop their own brand by mixing unique Mongolian sounds with the pleasant pop-rock accepted world wide – Mongol Pop.
I can’t help but feel that the success of ‘Gangnam Style’ must be encouraging to these musicians who are looking to not only be active consumers of culture worldwide, but also producers.