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Gangnam Style: Americans just late to the party

In Foreign Policy, Mark Russell notes what while Americans might be learning about K-pop for the first time, Korean pop culture has been a big deal in Asia and elsewhere for quite a while:

Korean pop culture may not (yet) turn heads in Los Angeles or London, but its impact — economic as well as cultural — across the developing world is startling. First taking off in China and Southeast Asia in the late 1990s, but really spiking after 2002, Korean TV dramas and pop music have since moved to the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and now even parts of South America. “Gangnam Style,” a music video by the rapper/satirist PSY, has been viewed 292 million times since it was released in July. Since then he’s been welcomed with open arms, and has been spotted teaching several celebrities his iconic “horsey dance.”

Indeed, the rise of K-Pop is the bellwether of a variety of trends that are changing the global economy (and emerging markets in particular) in fundamental ways. Its success as a product – but, more importantly, as a cultural brand promoting Korean exports ranging from soft drinks to cosmetics to consumer electronics — suggests that Western countries aren’t likely to have a lock on the hearts and wallets of developing countries for long. More generally, it illustrates the new reality that the North-South pattern of trade and cultural exchange that has dominated the world since the ascendance of European colonialism is giving way and making room for unexpected soft power.

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  • slim

    That link leads to a BBC Ryugong Hotel report.

  • http://pawikoreapics.blogspot.com/ pawikirogii 石鵝

    the koreans have shown quite a bit of the world that you can have sleek and sophisticated entertainment without the caucasian. the lasting effect of the k wave will be it’s heavy influence in getting other countries to produce thier own glossy dramas and songs. indeed! that is already happening with many countries in asia trying to copy korean styles like boy/girl bands with sophisticated dance routines. koreans give asians a chance to see themselves as glamorous.

    i just remember all yahoos telling us the k wave would be over in just a few years. k wave since 1997.

  • Yu Bum Suk

    The link sends me to an article about the Ryugyong Hotel.

    Americans are not going to watch TV that’s over-dubbed or subtitled, period. Three minutes is about their attention span for such things.

  • http://rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

    Link corrected.

  • berto

    pawi is so right. the koreans have shown the world just how well their dramas and pop music can do without the help of whitey. it is just like when i show my friends that i can write hangul and i tell them korea had nothing to do with the hangul i was writing.
    and kudos to sticking with k pop since 97. if you were a 15 year old girl at that time, it would make you a 30 year old woman now. i think we can safely say pawi, that you stuck it out longer than most 30 year old women would have. keep up the good fight pawi and dream of the glory you’ll be basking in, when one of your boy bands gets as many hits as a finger being bitten.

  • cm

    Well, you know somebody was going to ask this question eventually.
    Is Psy popular in the West because he reinforces the stereotypical image of Asian men in the West?


    Come to think of it, Psy’s song hasn’t taken off in Asia as in the West.
    It was interesting was reading all the comments to that article from people who probably have never heard of Korean pop before. All this is the biggest positive publicity for South Korea has ever had for itself. The Korean ministry of tourism can only dream that they have PSY’s marketing effect. Korea thanks Justin Beiber’s management company, particularly, the man who promoted Beiber and PSY, Scooter Braun.

  • Q

    The pedantic analysis of the Guardian article fails. If psy’s GS reinforces the stereotypical image of Asian men in the West, why on earth people regardless of their colors are crazy on imitating him and producing parodies of their own version that does not have any racial implication?

  • http://briandeutsch.blogspot.com Brian D

    Korean (and Japanese) dramas and music have a decent following in the US among some circles. It may never become mainstream . . . but who cares? Mainstream in the US now is Jersey Shore, reality shows about dysfunctional families, overcommercialized sports, and other garbage that appeals to the dumb-as-we-wanna-be demographics who comprise the mainstream. Asian stuff can be, and is, a nice alternative.

    And, yeah, speaking of being late to the party, the Guardian and other sources that know nothing about Korea or its pop culture are trying too hard to analyze a video that has already been overanalyzed.

  • slim

    The dumbest words written on PSY so far are probably race-baiting pawi’s (which is true for almost every subject; he is what he is) but in the thinking adult world, The Guardian and the Atlantic have delivered some real crap analysis this week. People who (possibly) should know better are freighting this who PSY phenomenon with a whole lot of analysis of questionable quality and relevance.

    My quibble with the Foreign Policy piece is that Korean products — cars, white goods, fashion etc — won widespread acceptance 2 decades ago through aggressive marketing, willingness to charge into frontier markets, and being at the right price point compared to Japan’s competing items across the same sectors. Would Mark argue that people around the world are going to buy Detroit-made cars on the back of the successes of Eminem or Kid Rock? That hasn’t really even worked inside the USA.

  • cm


    good post.

  • dogbertt

    I regularly attended concerts given in the U.S. by Korean pop stars 25 years ago.

    I shudder to think how far in front of this trend I was.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936
  • SomeguyinKorea


    What’s next, you’re going to claim Koreans invented electro-pop?

  • hardyandtiny

    Do Koreans ever get sick of themselves?

  • SomeguyinKorea


    I wonder how she’d explain his success in Korea. He’s a fat guy who can dance his ass off with confidence…and his tunes are catchy and humourous. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • SomeguyinKorea


    Yeah. It’s not as if Korean products aren’t already popular.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936


    I have to somewhat disagree with you. I think the k-wave (music, drama and movies) has helped a number of Korean products (and services), especially fashion, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. Although Korean cultural exports only account for $135M or so a year, it probably has a much bigger multiplier effect on other products, especially those that are related to “beauty,” society and culture.

    For things like TVs, cars and smartphones, probably very minimal impact. However, two decades ago Korean products were still decidedly behind the Sonys and Toyotas of the world and “accepted” primarily for price reasons (i.e. cheaper) not as they are today, which are more for quality reasons.

  • dokdoforever

    Psy’s Kangnam Style is innovative, creative and catchy which makes it very different from most of the assembly-line, corporately produced K-pop stuff, which more often than not is just a copy of the latest American fad.

    Unlike Psy, many K-Pop singers don’t write their own songs. One of corporate K-pop’s strategies to minimize risk is to have their song writers copy the current American fad. It makes sense, really, because that’s where most popular music trends in Korea tend to originate.

    But, it also makes K-pop unattractive to most American listeners, who can compare it to the original.

    From what I’ve heard, Psy, on the other hand, came in as an outsider, wrote his own songs, was known for being ‘bizarre,’ and released his songs on his own through the internet to gain a following. Psy has said that he didn’t follow the K pop model.

    Psy may become even more popular in the U.S., but is a mistake to think that other K-pop acts will become popular because of him. Hopefully Psy will inspire other innovative and creative Korean performers, and weaken corporate K-pop’s strangle hold on innovation.

  • Q

    ‘It’s Art’, ‘Paradise’, ‘Right Now’ are possibly the next songs to be promoted.

    Psy’s ‘아버지’ (Father) has a lyric that might parallel with g.o.d.’s ‘어머님께’(To my Mother) . Both songs reach parents generations and appreciate their their sacrifice and love, which also could be found in SNSD’s ‘Dear Mom’, Seoel’s ‘My Father’, and Lee Seunghwan’s ‘내 어머니’. I like the continuous kpop composition of the theme of filial love.

  • Q

    Oh, no… a break time at a middle school in California.


  • Maximus2008

    Q said:
    “If psy’s GS reinforces the stereotypical image of Asian men in the West, why on earth people regardless of their colors are crazy on imitating him and producing parodies of their own version that does not have any racial implication?”

    People are doing it because it’s funny, and it’s about a fat guy doing funny moves (like Macarena and others). Maybe because he is Korean it adds to the fun (think Jack Black doing that: would it have the same effect?).

    For the crap k-pop (a.k.a. groups), you don’t have that reaction. You already have enough of that elsewhere.

    You cannot be that dumb, Q. But, anyway, you’re a great addition to the Hole: when we were getting tired of pawi (actually, I love his posts), and missing wjk, you came as the next idiot. Keep it up!

  • mickster

    Sensitive but good point. He’s sort of an Asian version of Eddie Murphy. This is not to deny his originality. I guess he’s good in his own right.

    Unlike other K-pop stars, he is not well know in Japan. Well, he is not marketed in Japan, but I doubt he would be a hit here because he wouldn’t be as funny in Asia.

  • http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/ jefferyhodges

    Ms. Mahdawi concludes her Guardian article:

    “The stereotype of a portly, non-threatening Charlie Chan-type who speaks ‘comical’ English is still very much alive . . . . And it’s hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that this stereotype is contributing something to the laughter around Gangnam Style.”

    Non-threatening?! Psy blows stuff up! But Mahdawi’s right about that portly business — Psy carries himself well. Sad to hear, though, that Mahdawi’s own laughter at the video is due in part to her stereotype of East Asian men, as she herself uncomfortably confesses.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  • broona

    I guess to someone like mahdawi, Psy’s popularity is baffling; she puts a dark spin on the whole phenomenon as a way of explaining his success outside Asia. To quote a commenter from the Guardian site: how the heck does she wake up in the morning? Not everything is sinister or has to be seen from that angle.

    To the rest of us, his popularity rests on the catchiness of the tune, the fun dance moves and the tightly choreographed video. He does carry himself very well and people are attracted to that.

  • silver surfer

    Love some of the comments on that article.


    “This article does little to overturn tired stereotypes of overly PC liberals with no sense of humour.”

  • silver surfer

    And Arwa Mahdawi clearly has never met a Korean ajossi or she wouldn’t ask ‘What’s the spoof spoofing?’. Or maybe she just can’t bring herself to accept the logical conclusion that spoofable ajossis do in fact exist.

  • Q

    iTune Store Top 10 chart has interesting records as of Sep. 30 2012:


    Gangnam Style won:

    # 1 in the US, UK, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Luxemburg, Netherland, and New Zealand.
    #2 in Greece, Norway, Portugal, and Switzerland.
    #3 in Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Sweden.
    # 4 in France
    #6 in Germany

    In Japan, psy could not make it in the top 10 but Girls’ Generation won #1 with ‘Oh!’

  • broona

    Enrique Iglesias is in the top ten in the U.S. chart. I don’t know, it just seems kind of funny, with Rihanna, Swift and all.

  • broona

    Oops, I mistook him for Julio.

  • mickster

    Yes, KARA, Girl’s Generation and other well-tailored K-pop groups are more popular in Japan. BoA, a pioneer, also remains popular.

  • slim

    Look to an NFL player to bust a Gangnam Style end-zone celebration one of these games.

  • http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/ jefferyhodges

    Slim, do you mean “bust into” — or has that expression also altered in my quarter-century absence from the States? I’ve noticed a few changes in emails from relatives, e.g., some niece recently “graduated high school” rather than “graduated from high school.”

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  • http://askakorean.blogspot.com thekorean

    Look to an NFL player to bust a Gangnam Style end-zone celebration one of these games.

    Happened more than a month ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICRz9Q0bJNE

  • gbnhj

    Jeffery, folks have been busting without need of a preposition since at least 1989.

  • http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/ jefferyhodges

    Thanks, gbnhj. 1989, eh? That’s the year I left for good, though I was already half the time in Europe after 1985. Anyway, I guess that explains my abysmal ignorance of current English.

    I reckon I need to return to the school of hard knocks and graduate it again so I can regain my street smarts.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer


    I still say “was graduated from”, but that marked me as syntactically odd even back in the day

  • http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/ jefferyhodges

    Sperwer, are you posting from Constantinople (if I might be semantically odd)?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer