It took me multiple social interactions with the song in order to become convinced that I should probably take a good hard listen to “Gangnam Style” by Korean pop star Psy.
First, my mom texted me, asking if I had heard of this “Korean pop video that’s becoming popular on YouTube.” Of course”, I responded in the negative, not thinking much of it considering how many times my mother had asked me that very question about other videos. Then, a guy at work asked me if I had seen some YouTube that he hesitantly pronounced as “gang naym”. He didn’t mention that it happened to be Korean. After a number of situations similar to these, I eventually not only getting around to watching the video, but also began hearing the thing play on the radio and even participated in a parody video at work.
So what is the big deal with this song?
As I write this, it is already relatively late in the song’s life. So far, “Gangnam Style” has already broken the Guinness World Record for the most “Likes” on a YouTube video of all time and successfully reached #2 on the US Hot 100 Charts. Furthermore, Psy the singer and songwriter behind the single has even recently been signed to Schoolboy Records — home of the likes of Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen. The song has received an incredible amount of success — but the fact that “Gangnam Style”, a Korean song, achieved this much success in America is by far its highest accomplishment.
Somewhere between our subconscious spirit of American Exceptionalism and monolingualism rests a clear unwillingness to engage with media that is not in English. We respect ideas and concepts from other countries, but aren’t usually ready to open up to the world. And while it’s true that pop music has its deepest musical and cultural roots buried in the American landscape, the truth is that we Americans are truly missing out on a lot of what the rest of the world is up to.
But then along comes “Gangnam Style”. A breathe of fresh air in the American pop music market — a concept, sense of humor, and emphatic amount of energy that seems to surpass language barriers. It’s a song that Koreans have shook their heads at, but also have managed to find a wealth of pride in. After all, not only is this the first Asian pop song to break into the Western market, it’s one of the first from any particular entertainment medium.
Earlier this year, announcements were made regarding the live-action adaptation of the beloved Japanese manga and animated film Akira. Not surprisingly, all of the primary actors under consideration for the lead roles were White. Also unsurprisingly, the various organizations behind pushing for more Asian-American attention in media picked up their torches once again. These were the same protesters who called out Hollywood when all white casts were arranged for live adaptations of animated series like Dragonball and The Last Airbender.
But is a silly song like “Gangnam Style” really what mainstream America needs to open up its cultural palette? Considering Psy has already promised to write his next album in English, perhaps not. If we have any desire of reaching out to people outside our homes both personally and culturally, fear of “the other” — of people unlike ourselves — has to be a trait we learn to leave behind. “Gangnam Style” might not be the answer for our culture at large, but it might be a step in the right direction.