Sunday, September 16, 2012

Commentary: Psy and the Acceptable Asian Man

Thoughts about music

The song of the hour.

So, by now, pretty much everybody who covers Korean music and a batch of mainstream international publications have had something to say about Psy's "Gangnam Style", which has, as of the writing of this post, had over 190 million views on YouTube, become an internet sensation, led to Psy getting airplay over the radio in some larger metropolitan cities in the US and even got him signed to the record label that represents Justin Bieber. And while everyone I know that follows Korean music knows Psy, even my friends and peers who otherwise don't care a thing about Korean or Asian media know about Psy and holler "Oppa Gangnam Style" along with him.

Much has been said about the viral sensation, breaking down the best moments of the video, examining whether or not this is a boon to Korean music's attempts to break into one of the most lucrative music markets in the world, and some pieces even went deep into the actual meaning of "Gangnam Style". And I was happy to let everyone else talk about "Gangnam Style" and its place in our world, except that I still have yet to read an article that hits one particular reason why I think "Gangnam Style" is so acceptable to Western audiences when every Korean and Japanese pop artist that tried to make it in America before has failed.

A Disclaimer

Now, first of all, I need to say that there is no simple "one reason" why any one song succeeds or fails in any market, so even though I'm going to be focusing on a particular aspect of why I think "Gangnam Style" gained the popularity it did, it is actually just one component of many to explain why "Gangnam Style" caught on in America. Some of the obvious reasons why "Gangnam Style" is so popular are that the music is catchy and fun, there is a goofy, but relatively easy dance attached to the song, and there is a humorous music video for the song. I won't need to explain the viral power of that.

Asian Pop Fails American Shores

However, Psy does have the unusual position of being a phenomenon because he wasn't trying to break into any international markets with "Gangnam Style". It was cooked up for the home audience. On the other hand, a number of other pop artists from Asia, in particular J-Pop (Utada Hikaru) and K-Pop (Wonder Girls, Girls Generation, Rain, BoA, and Psy's YG label-mate, Se7en) have all tried or are continuing to try to break into mainstream Western music markets with only limited success. Most of these artists have all seen a good deal of international success within Asia, certainly much more than Psy, who predominantly played to a Korean fanbase and hardly reached the level of success that his more popular label-mates, Big Bang and 2NE1, were able to reach even in Korea. So it's a bit quizzical that it's not the big stars of Asian pop, but Psy, a minor player, that truly made it big.

The pop stars that assailed the US made English versions of their songs, worked with American producers, got featured spots from high profile artists, and spent a nice amount of promotional money on music videos and yet not a success story among them, only serving to cater to the niche audience that Asian media serves in the US. So, what went wrong?

Teddy Riley produced this track. That's right, Mr. New Jack Swing himself.

Well, there are definitely some cultural differences at play here and I'm not talking about East versus West. Specifically, boy and girl bands are not especially popular in the US at the moment, outside of the niche pre-teen market, and so the tightly choreographed multi-girl units of Girls Generation and Wondergirls were fighting an uphill battle at best for any sort of mainstream popularity. So, despite the polished dance routines, hitmaker-made songs, and bevy of attractive faces there is simply a cultural limit to the capacity of their success.

The Asian Man Who Makes It

I was speaking to a non-Asian American friend of mine who has only a mild familiarity with Asian entertainment about the success of Psy and he lamented that of all riches of cool art and pop that Asia has, it was the silliness of Psy that made it big. And that got me thinking that, yes, indeed, Asia has a lot of talented artists working in various forms of entertainment, and not a single one of them, despite being quite available to be seen thanks to the power of social media, has ever broke the mainstream.

For example, Rain, who was at one point a gigantic pop star in Asia and frequently was voted to the top of Time's most influential charts, beating out Stephen Colbert and consequently getting a huge amount of publicity from Colbert's imagined feud between the two, never amounted to more than a place in two feature films, one of which he did manage to star in. But then like a real ninja assassin, he and his magic six-pack vanished from mainstream consciousness without a trace.

Ninja Assassin, despite the critical panning, did manage to make a little money, but Rain still doesn't really get the girl.

But even Rain, who was definitely known more for his dancing and his music and a being a romantic heartthrob in some popular Korean dramas ended up showing up in Western media as a martial artist and then I realized that Rain, as well as the vast majority of Asian and Asian American men that have ever made an impact in mainstream entertainment fit into a particular conception that the mainstream has of Asian men and, in this case, that is the butt-kicking martial artist. Despite that Rain wasn't exactly known for being this sort of actor back in Korea, in the US, that is who he had to be in order to see the silver screen. This most recently happened again with Jay Chou, the actor, filmmaker, and song-writing pop star from Taiwan, who, despite having a broad range of talent, comes to the US to follow in the footsteps of the grandfather of Asian martial artists in movies, Bruce Lee, taking up the mantle of Kato in The Green Hornet.

So, it's clear from the limited types of roles that people of Asian descent get in mainstream media, that for an Asian person to see any success in mainstream media, he or she must fit into one of these acceptable roles. That brings us to Psy: for all his breakout success, there is a good likelihood that he fits a particular role that mainstream Western media permits for Asian men.

Send in the Clowns

You only have to look at a handful of other Asian and Asian American men that have made any impression in mainstream American music to guess what role Psy fits. Just this year, Korean American Heejun Han made it to the elusive top ten of American Idol and while his buttery baritone did cut muster, it was his off-stage antics as a hilariously deadpan prankster that the public particularly reacted to. Before Han, the other Asian male that made any particular impact in American mainstream music was William Hung. Yeah.

That's right, alongside clowns from other mediums like Ken Jeong (and yellow-face disgraces like Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunoishi from Breakfast at Tiffany's), Psy fits right into the mainstream-friendly role of Asian male jester, offering goofy laughs for all, and thanks to Psy's decidedly non-pop star looks, in a very non-threatening package. Psy doesn't even have to sing in English or be understood because it's not the social critique offered by the lyrics that matters to the audience, but the marriage of the funny music video, goofy dance and a rather catchy tune, of which two of the elements are comical and, again, non-threatening.

After Psy's success, I imagine that Korean comic music duo UV is more likely to break in the US than G-Dragon.

That's not to say that there is anything wrong with appreciating Asian comic stylings or that Psy is at all untalented. The man came up with the concept and dance for his song as well as writing the whole thing itself and even manages to have a message in the mix. Likewise, many of these comically oriented Asian and Asian American performers are very good at what they do, so the problem isn't with them, but rather with the racism and neo-Orientalism prevalent in the mainstream American (and Western) mindset that blinds this society from seeing and accepting the full spectrum of Asian and Asian American people.

You Keep Your Sexy Back

When you take into account the images of the acceptable roles of the Asian nerd-slash-social outcast and Asian clown that are appreciated and contrast them to the Asian male pop stars that seem to have no cachet with the Western mainstream, one of the most obvious differences is that the Asian male pop stars exude sexiness whereas the clowns and the geeks, even though they are completely able to be cool, like Psy, do not. Even the most dangerous of the Asian male stereotypes, the martial artist, is denied any notable sexuality in the movies that become mainstream popular in the West. Bruce Lee's most popular movie in the US is Enter the Dragon. He doesn't get the girl. When Jet Li was still someone that people were trying to make a star in America, he starred in Romeo Must Die and rather than Aaliyah's romantic counterpart, he is merely a platonic friend at the end. Apparently pre-screening audiences booed the interracial kiss version which was screened. The producers must have known since they had already prepared an edit without a kiss.

Aw, even the bad boys of Big Bang can't get no love in New York.

Thus, even when the power of the Asian martial artist or the gunplay of the cop and gangster is appreciated by the white heterosexual male hegemonic power structure that rules the mainstream, the potential threat of Asian male sexuality is clearly not and therefore, for heterosexual Asian and Asian American men to see mainstream success, it genuinely helps, not only to fit one of the pre-ordained acceptable Asian male roles (nerd, martial artist, gangster and clown), but also to avoid any positive displays of sexuality and presenting yourself in a manner that can be seen as desirable to heterosexual women.

The male vanguard of K-pop, with polished music, image and music videos, dressed in high fashion and with hard bodies that they aren't shy in showing off, fit none of these prescribed stereotypes and definitely exude sexiness, as well as frequently contesting the sexiness of hyper-masculinity prevalent in the West (especially North America). And the confident display of Asian male sexuality from these pop stars might simply be enough for Western audiences to find reasons in those cultural differences, whether the fashion, the style of music, or the differences in acceptable masculinity, to reject that particular image of Asians. And that might be one reason why Asian pop keeps losing its bid for a place in Western mainstream music.

Losers and Winners

The end result, however, is that everyone loses. You see, not only are Asian men stereotyped into certain roles in the public consciousness and have to conform to these roles in order to improve chances for mainstream success in entertainment, but the mainstream then denies itself access to a tremendous cache of quality works and performers of art and entertainment. Psy, for his infectious electro-hip-pop and crazy antics is merely a tiny sliver of the Korean music scene, which stretches far outside of the best known halls of pop and into the vibrant hip-hop, avant-garde, and indie scenes, which features perhaps some of the most interesting and enjoyable music I have personally encountered.

If all you want to see from Asia are clowns, martial artists and geeks, you miss out on fantastic music like this.

However, I do think that the Western mainstream is slowly becoming more open to a broader spectrum of images of Asians and Asian Americans, in music represented by the success of Asian American electro-house-hip-hop foursome, Far East Movement, on the airwaves. This is a group that presents a hard-partying image with a clear appreciation for club-going women. Not to mention the rising popularity of Asian Americans in the younger social networking and social media generation.

Psy's sudden and surprising success means little for the success of K-pop in the West, which, aside from the dedicated niche fandom and Asian diasporic groups, faces a tremendous uphill battle thanks to both cultural differences in pop music and a limited set of acceptable non-threatening roles that performers of Asian descent can fill. Psy's "Gangnam Style", for all of the many reasons why it's successful, from the creativity inherent in the music as well as the video that accompanies it, to the charismatic man himself and his polished performances, is also wildly successful in the West in some small part due to the fact that he is one of the things the Western mainstream wants to see from its Asian people: a funny guy who doesn't pose any threat of making Asian men seem sexually desirable.

But, if anything is positive about Psy's success for the representation of Asian diasporic images in the collective consciousness of the Western mainstream, it's that "Gangnam Style" is clear proof that the internet, social media, and streaming video have made the world smaller and the borders more porous, so that a woman in Ottawa and a man in Jakarta both end up knowing how to do the cheesy horse dance and shouting "Oppa Gangnam Style!" And even if there are mountains to climb before we can reach a world where there are real representations of Asians in Western mainstream media, the fact is that all these genuine representations of people of Asian descent are now just a click away. And by the power of the internet through social media, be it a tweet, a Tumblr post, a vlog on YouTube or a Facebook share, you also now have the power to share that breadth of humanity with everyone you know. Horse-dance and all.

Edit: September 25, 2012

Here is some additional analysis of Psy's success in the US: The Metropolitician, High Yellow, Seoulbeats, CNN Geekout, Ask a Korean!

And a little more analysis from me:

As I gave this issue even more thought, I realized that there is even more than could be articulated as to what is going on when it comes to talking about sexuality and mainstream acceptance:

The issue is not entirely about actual sexiness and attractiveness, but also about what the performer is projecting. The contrast being that the clowns are not actively projecting their sexuality and that when a clown (as performer, not as someone who has a similar appearance to someone who performs as a clown) does project sexuality, It usually comes in the form of a joke, rather than attractiveness. For example, the male leads of the Apatow camp's films (Jason Siegal, Seth Rogan, Steve Carell) never project an intended-to-be attractive sexuality, but, when their sexuality does show up, they use their bodies in ways to invoke comedy (even if the joke requires us to accept that value judgement that they are not attractive per mainstream aesthetics).

In contrast, Asian pop performers are definitely actively projecting a sexuality that is intended to be attractive. The threat of being seen as sexually desirable is, in part, a matter of whether the performer is actually willfully projecting a desirable sexuality. In the case of Psy, he, like other clowns, never at any point in "Gangnam Style" willfully projects a sexuality that attempts to be deemed as desirable to the other sex and at a couple points does invoke his sexuality for comedy. I remember Will Smith saying once that one of the hardest things he has to do is to both be sexy and be funny, because the two cannot coexist at the exact same time. At no point does this mean that a clown cannot be deemed sexy or be sexually desirable, but, rather, they are safe because in the context of their work, they are not actively projecting an image of sexual desirability.

Then look at the martial artist stereotype that is also deemed safe, and therefore also not a threat of being seen as sexually desirable. Many of the Asian martial artists that show up in Western mainstream cinema, because of their prowess and their bodies' adherence to mainstream standards of beauty, could be deemed as attractive, but in the movies, are similarly not a threat because they too don't actively project sexual desirability. This is done in the movies by limiting romantic storylines. As such, the effect is that these martial artists are effectively seen as asexual and therefore not actively sexually desirable, since they are more interested in mission, vengeance or conquest, rather than sex. Again, in no way does that suggest that these martial artists are not attractive or sexually desirable (Rain and Jay Chou have tons of screaming fangirls), but, rather, there is no narrative in the movies that encourage an active and positive sexuality in the characters.

In both instances, the incarnation of type effectively either blunts or elides a positive depiction of desirable Asian male sexuality, so that the only representations of Asian male sexuality that are present are either non-positive (comical) or dismissive (effectively asexual). Psy fits in the former narrative as a clown, and part of the reason for his success is not that he's not sexy as a person, as I'm sure he has his share of admirers, but rather, because his comedy effectively makes his sexuality part of the joke in performance. This wouldn't be a problem if, for example, the mainstream also accepted performances of Asian men who do actively and positively project their sexuality as frequently as they accept images of Asian men who do not project their sexuality and desirability, but right now, we are not seeing parity.

Thus, the matter of a lack of an advertised sexual desirability does play a role in why Psy is so acceptable to the mainstream where the (heterosexual) male Asian pop stars are not. It is not the only reason, nor the only racial element at play here, but I think it is clearly one element of why Psy can see the success that he does without great resistance.