Gangnam Style, Racism, and the Evolving Asian Stereotype
A piece I wrote for Wellesley’s Asian/Asian-American interest magazine, Generasians. This was written a few months ago (back when writing long essays about the socio-cultural effects of “Gangnam Style” was still in vogue), but the fall ’12 issue was just released today and I didn’t want to put this up until the print edition was out.
There are probably a few more things I would have wanted to discuss in this piece had I written this a few months later than I did (namely Psy’s appearance on AMA and the Western reaction to his whole “f*ck America” thing), and maybe I will….when I finally have the time to do so, ha. But for now, this is a pretty comprehensive rundown of my views on the matter, for those who have been wondering.
It’s the meme of the hour. The club-banger started out as the lead single from South Korean hip-hop artist Psy’s sixth album, but has since turned into an explosive, global viral sensation. Within a matter of weeks, “Gangnam Style” received over 300 million some-odd views on Youtube and, at the time of writing, is still sitting pretty at the top of the iTunes Top 10 list. In short, “Gangnam Style” has become nothing less than a pop culture phenomenon.
In the eyes of the Korean pop industry, the success of “Gangnam Style” in the Western market is an aberrant one. In the past, several Korean artists, who have achieved widespread popularity and respect in Asia and have given the American audience a shot, were all met by partial–if not abysmal–failure. But Psy seems to be the peculiar exception; his music was never meant to be marketed to a non-Korean audience, and his success in the global market was purely accidental. But now, he has become the first Korean pop artist to achieve mainstream popularity amongst Western audiences. His accomplishments have reached the point where one could argue that it’s unlikely that another K-pop star will ever gain the same kind of success in the West that Psy has garnered thus far.
For decades, Asians and Asian-Americans have tried their darndest to gain the attention and approval of Western audiences. But despite the efforts of Asian and Asian-American entertainers to show off their talent, their coolness, or even their sex appeal in an effort to break into mainstream popularity, the ones who do end up “making it” tend to do so by being, well, uncool.
Of course, there is still a good handful of Asian and Asian-American actors and musicians that continue to fight the good fight in the American entertainment industry. But let’s face it: the combined popularity of Lucy Liu, Masi Oka and Harry Shum, Jr. would never stand a chance to the popularity of one William Hung or one Psy — both of whom have become universally recognizable and are enjoying an odd form of popularity where they are lauded not so much for their talent, but for their mere ability to exist.
For all the supposed accolades Psy has received from the Western media, there’s something decidedly non-threatening about him. Psy is an overweight, middle-aged Asian male whose claim to fame in the West is his horse dance and goofy onstage antics. He is entertaining, yes, but to a Western audience, he is also harmless and sexless. He poses no threat and challenges no stereotypes previously assigned to the Asian male by White society. And thus, Psy becomes acceptable to the Western gaze.
Thanks to his new American management, Psy has been making rounds amongst the American daytime TV circuit and is consistently met by enthusiastic audiences, eager to see the man who made “Gangnam Style” happen. Indeed, the sight and sound of a Korean song being performed on “Good Morning America” in front of a giant crowd is still somewhat surreal and perhaps even a little impressive. But with each guest appearance on Ellen, SNL, and the Today Show, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that America is not interested in Psy the person as much as they are enthralled by Psy, the horse-dancing funnyman. During these television appearances, not once was Psy invited to discuss his career and background as a musician. At his first appearance on Ellen, he wasn’t even given a chance to introduce himself before he was immediately prompted to do the horse-dance. Psy was nothing more than a prop, only there to teach the white folk how to dance.
His appearance on Chelsea Lately was no better; Psy performed in a skit where he galloped throughout an office, showing office workers how to put a Gangnam Style flair on otherwise menial tasks. The skit wrapped up with Psy pouring Chelsea Handler a martini — to which Chelsea comments, “Now that’s an Asian I can date.” Shockingly, this skit has received few criticisms despite its racist depiction of Asians as sexless service people. But then again, why ruin the fun by bringing up the sensitive subject of race?
In late September, Korean-American rapper Tiger JK was invited to perform at the Seoul leg of The Creators Project, a traveling global festival that showcases visual arts and technology and is funded by Intel and Vice Magazine. Formerly of renowned hip-hop group Drunken Tiger, Tiger JK is one of the most respected artists in Korean hip-hop. He, along with biracial wife Tasha, has also been staunch advocates against racism.
So when a bunch of white guys near the front of the stage started heckling Tiger JK and demanding that he stop his set to do the “Gangnam Style” horse dance instead, it wasn’t surprising that Tiger JK called them out and proceeded to curse out the crowd — an incident he later recounted on his Twitter:
“I told them I ain’t here to make you laugh, not here to dance for you, then it triggered something really dark in me. My f*** you turned into f*** everybody to f*** all the white people to f*** CNN to f *** Hollywood to fu** all yall who think Asians are here to make you laugh by dancing my asses off.”
Tiger JK later apologized for his tactlessness and for being racist by “calling out all white people” (an unnecessary apology, because–surprise! reverse racism doesn’t exist), but what is of greater importance is the fact that this actually happened — a bunch of white folks saw Tiger JK, a Korean, and, associating him with Psy and “Gangnam Style,” demanded that he stop what he was doing in order to appease their request of performing the horse dance. Tiger JK has absolutely nothing to do with Psy, nothing to do with “Gangnam Style,” and nothing to do with this whole phenomenon except for the fact that he is Asian and Psy is also Asian. The people in the crowd conflated Psy and Tiger JK’s common ethnicity and attached both of them to one specific stereotype — a stereotype that has been highlighted, applauded, celebrated, and accepted by Western society, to the point where people now find it perfectly appropriate to pin an entire ethnicity to one dance move. Which — in case it hasn’t been made obvious enough already — is racist.
To add insult to injury, this particular incident took place in Korea, and Tiger JK was heckled by white people who had enough of an invested interest in Korea’s culture and society to actually come to Korea. Imagine what would happen if this took place in America, in front of an audience who could care less about Asia and Asians — that is, apart from “Gangnam Style” and the horse dance.
This, then, begs the question: Will all Asians now be inextricably linked to and conflated with the “Gangnam Style” meme? The fact that Western audiences are willing to accept a horse-dancing, funny-looking Asian man for his comedic value in a heartbeat, but continue to reject any of the Asian entertainers with decidedly less funny performances should certainly cause people to think twice about the veracity with which stereotypes continue to affect Asians and Asian-Americans today. Tiger JK’s run-in with the hecklers only serves to prove this point. Conversely, Psy’s rise in popularity due to “Gangnam Style” proves nothing, apart from the fact that Western audiences do not react with immediate repulsion to Asians — a fact that, at our current level of human development, should be a given. But what is actually happening is much more complex and sinister.
The disparity in popularity between Psy and any other Asian artist who has tried to break into the Western market by selling a conventional pop image is highly revealing of the type of Asian that the West is comfortable consuming. In other words, Asian artists should just stick to putting on funny, entertaining shows for Western audiences to enjoy, while leaving the “serious” stuff to the white folks to handle — because they are the ones who know how serious, grown-up pop is supposed to be done.
The lack of East Asian faces in the American pop scene is not a consequence of a mere lack of effort. Korean artists and their management have invested boatloads of money and brainpower in the hopes of one of their artists finally making it in the American market. K-pop idols like Rain, BoA, Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation have all come to America with the hopes of planting a career here, but all have returned home with little to show for their efforts.
Their hopes are not baseless; these are some of the most successful and popular names in Asia. These are the names that make an entire continent’s pop culture tick. They are cool enough, sexy enough, and talented enough to play with the big boys and girls in America’s pop music industry. The creative staff behind them is experienced, hardworking, and talented. But Western audiences rarely give them a second glance — and even when they do, the reactions are all the same:
“They’re the Asian version of [insert White entertainer here].”
“They need to stop trying so hard.”
As far as the Western hivemind is concerned, Asians have no place filling the role of the fierce pop star capable of owning the stage and captivating an audience with powerful vocals dance moves. The idea of an Asian playing pop star runs contrary to all of the Asian stereotypes propagated by Western society. It makes Western audiences uncomfortable, and this discomfort is only slightly reduced when the Asian artist in question is juxtaposed against a White equivalent who is usually seen as more well-refined, more experienced, and superior — a standard that the comparatively inferior Asian artist ought to aspire to.
The incident at the Creators Project only serves to further magnify the racism that is being perpetuated behind this mindset. Before, Asians in the entertainment industry had to battle a wide array of vague stereotypes — the nerd, the ninja, the superhero sidekick. Now, the stereotype of the Asian/Korean entertainer has been narrowed down and pinned to a certain figure: Psy and “Gangnam Style.” It might sound ludicrous, but even one of Korea’s most renowned and respected rappers turned out to be no exception to this rule. At this rate, anything could happen.
The real disappointment of this situation is that Asian-Americans seem to be more impressed with the fact that a Western audience has finally “accepted” an Asian entertainer, instead of acknowledging the fact that Psy’s popularity amongst Western audiences is one that is deeply rooted in racism. But to some Asians, celebrating Psy’s popularity is another way of just taking what we can get. White society has finally elevated “one of our own” into the public spotlight and made him acceptable for mainstream consumption, so we ought to be grateful.
This isn’t to say that Psy and “Gangnam Style” don’t deserve to be celebrated. Psy is an incredible live performer (who’s killed it on stage long before “Gangnam Style” was even a thing), and “Gangnam Style” is a solid pop song with an extremely well-produced music video. But when it comes to Gangnam Style: the Meme, it’s proven itself to be nothing less than a mess of microaggressions wrapped in a reinforced skin of harmful stereotypes. As the latest “Asian sensation” continues to take Western pop culture by storm, the viral popularity of “Gangnam Style” reveals of how Western society continues to cling tightly onto stereotypes, both old and new — and for the Asian-American community, this ought to be a cause for alarm, not wonder.