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Gangnam Style, Racism, and the Evolving Asian Stereotype

MTV EMA's 2012 - Show

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.

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Gangnam Style.

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.

20121213_cmpatricia_masiokaFor 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?

Here’s why.

20121213_cmpatricia_tigerjk_tashaIn 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.

20121213_cmpatricia_boaThe 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].”

Or,

“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.

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  • Jitters

    Thank you for bringing this kind of theory to the public table. The racism here is being complexly reproduced by everyone involved, however. Even before white people have the opportunity to pass judgment on an Asian star, the Asian cultures have wholly adopted whiteness. Mainstream United States culture is being offered what Asia thinks is “worthy” of attention. Look at the photos of Asian artists included in this article — American clothes, American hairstyles, probably English advertisements (it is racist to think Americans are unable to appreciate foreign language), and dare I say it, medical procedures that make their eyes appear “less Asian.” Racism (both in the form of Asian-hating whites and self-hating Asians) is being produced and reproduced by actors on both continents, both informing each other endlessly. In this case through the tangled web, though, racism’s agency is beginning in Asia.

    • http://www.callmepatricia.com Patricia

      Spot on.

  • http://twitter.com/refresh_daemon refresh_daemon

    Nicely written.

  • Random Username

    A couple of points:

    1) I’m curious to know as to why apologizing for “calling out ALL white people” isn’t necessary? It seems like a generalization that certainly doesn’t apply to everyone of that race.

    2) As far as kpop artists not being successful in the U.S. goes though, I think that the main issues are language and marketing strategies. Given the popularity of our music, combined with the dominance of the English language, as a country, we’re not in a position to need to cater to other languages. As such, any effort to gain long standing success in the U.S. must come in the form of English songs and good promotions. People have to be able to 1) understand it and 2) know about it. Simply releasing a Korean song translated into English isn’t sufficient enough to be successful. It doesn’t matter how popular the group is in Korea. If the majority of people in the U.S. don’t know about them or understand them, it’s going to be difficult for them to be successful. With a good command of the language though (beyond just knowing the English words in the song) and decent marketing, Korean groups have a greater chance of being well received.

    Other than that though, I definitely agree that many non-Asians (not JUST white people) often stereotype Asians as unsexual math nerds and that can play a part in how they’re perceived musically. However, I think that as marketing strategies and English abilities of kpop companies improve, Americans will begin to become more educated, open, and exposed to their music. Here’s hoping for a Will.I.am and 2ne1 collaboration soon.

    • http://www.callmepatricia.com Patricia

      1) for starters, you’re a lot better off being called out on your racism than being a victim of racism yoursel. the reason why it’s so frustrating to see white people constantly bemoan the lack of apologies from people of color whenever white people are collectively accused being racist is because it’s just another way of derailing the situation. by ignoring the actual issue at hand (racism, which is systematic, institutionalized oppression which has caused and continues to cause physical, mental, and emotional harm to poc everywhere) and respinning the issue (being called a racist, which has no substantial effect apart from hurt feelings) so that white people are at the center of attention, it reinforces the power structures that elevate white people and oppress people of color. tiger jk didn’t need to apologize because his actions were a result of being a victim of racism, being a victim of oppression. he was provoked. and while it might not be very nice of him to generalize, his actions only resulted in white people getting their feelings hurt. telling a victim of oppression that he ought to apologize to his oppressors because he hurt their feelings is, to say the least, insulting.

      and it’s not as much about calling out or demonizing “all white people” as much as it is about calling out whiteness, which is more or less propagated by white people.

      2) agreed with the idea that any mainstream pop music (that is, not “novelty” music like gangnam style) needs to be in english in order to be accepted by the western masses. however, i see this more as an unfortunate truth than a “that’s reality and y’all just have to deal with it” ideal. the attitude that regards english as being superior and all other languages as being “less” is highly pervasive in the united states (how many times have you heard a white person scream at a non-english speaking poc, ‘SPEAK ENGLISH!’ and treat that poc like a child, thinking that by exercising intimidation and power over him/her, s/he would end up doing whatever the white person wants?), and i don’t encourage that kind of imperialist attitude even when it comes to kpop’s crossover into the american market. but unfortunately, most westerners aren’t at a point where they can readily accept anything that’s not in a language that they understand (things that are in a foreign language can make them feel uneasy and powerless, which, considering their position in the world, is an uncomfortable and alien feeling), so having songs english is an unfortunate necessity. i get that english is necessary for korean artists to “make it” in america, but i really wish that it wasn’t that way and i strongly believe that the reason why having a good command of english is so important is one that is deeply rooted in imperialism and racism, and it’s not something that we should just let slide. “whitifying” kpop stars in order to make them more palatable to white audiences is a very, very bad idea.

      • Random Username

        1) I guess that’s where we differ then. While I agree that reverse discrimination doesn’t exist, as that would suggest a “right” way to discriminate, I do think that racism and discrimination exist among all races, and not just among white people. Does being a victim of discrimination or racism make it ok to do the same back though? No. In this case, what was said to him was completely unacceptable, and I’m sure that the audience members were racist and deserved whatever he said to them. However, to extend it to the race as a whole is just as bad as what he was accusing white people of doing. No one wants to have to be called oppressed or an oppressor just because SOME people who happen to share your skin color are associated with those names. Your race shouldn’t define you as a person. I think that until ALL races are able to let go of these stereotypes and generalizations about other races though, racism and discrimination will continue to exist around the world.
        2) I feel that it’s like that in most places though. When kpop stars go to Japan, they speak Japanese. When they go to China, they speak Chinese. Why wouldn’t you learn the language of the country you’re trying to sell music in? It makes your music comprehensible and it also shows respect for the country in some way. I think that it also enables singers to connect and communicate with their fans on a more personable level. To suggest that kpop stars shouldn’t have to learn English to promote IN America where few people speak Korean is ridiculous. It’s not “whitifying” them, it’s promoting music in the language of the country you’re trying to make it in. It’s common sense.

  • resakun

    linzerdinzer made some interesting similar points http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbGUSkYUt4Q thats just as interesting to see each other’s points.

  • Jeff

    Great blog. It gave me a lot of ideas for my paper.

  • New York City 11

    Regardless if PSY wasn’t targeting America for Gangnam Style, the gimmicks from songs work on everyone. Everyone knows how things spread on youtube nowadays, if it’s funny it blows up, it just happened to be something that was funny to Americans because of the dance so it became a huge trend. To me, Americans that have their favorite music artists is because they really love their music, and they idolize them. Americans don’t idolize PSY, they just it’s the funniest dance they’ve ever seen. To me, PSY Gangnam Style being a big hit, even hurts Asian American music artists even more. There are Asian American, and Asian….thats the difference. PSY’s hit hurts Asian music artists even more, because there are many that don’t want anything to do with PSY. I know PSY thinks it’s great cause the money is rolling in, but I look at it very differently. It’s great for one person to succeed, but when the one person succeeds and hurts millions of others while he does it, then its the wrong success. I spoke to one of my asian friends in the music industry last week about this and all she kept talking about is how she wants K-Pop to keep blowing up and blowing up in the states and it doesn’t matter that they don’t speak english and it’s all about the hottest trend and hottest group to try to make it in America, I’m sorry PSY may say he had no idea what was gonna happen, but who knows if he really targeted America or not? I believe he did, because K-Pop has gained a lot of ground the past 2 years in the U.S., so mabye his timing was right on. It’s like this, if I were to compare some of America’s top artists to PSY, like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyonce, Ryan Tedder, Justin Bieber, Macklemore, The Black Keys, etc etc, I don’t believe that PSY is on their level of music talent whatsoever. NOT EVEN CLOSE. Tiger JK is a true artist, I grew up listening to him and PSY, back when PSY first started his music still wasn’t that great. It may take a long time for Asian Americans to be respected in the music industry and not laughed at. For me, it doesn’t help when asians from Korea blow up with trendy and wild and funny videos hoping it catches on. Don’t get me wrong, I like serious and I like funny, but meaningful in the same. If I make it in music, I don’t owe PSY a single thing, because all he did was make it harder for me, just like when Jin came out with his learn chinese single, hurt us. I still deal with enough crap with Korean’s in New York telling me I’m not Korean cause I’m adopted. Korea as country has enough issues as it is, and this just makes it harder for Asian Americans to make something of themselves without being tied to corny musicians that are shooting for dollar signs.

  • Dom

    I got called racist over Tumblr the other day for liking T-ara, SNSD, f(x) and C-REAL, so now I’m confused because me liking them doesn’t even have anything to do with them being from Korea but because their beats are hot

  • Mr. Oshawott

    Thanks for this very-detailed article.
    I really didn’t think Psy’s music video of Gangnam Style would end up having severe repercussions on other Asian/Asian-American musicians that are trying to get their foot into the American music industry. :-(
    My sincere apologies to those that may have felt offended.