This is kind of old news; the Gangnam Style craze was months ago. But Shift East has just become the latest of a handful of blogs or websites to comment on the question of why Gangnam Style never caught on in Japan.
I tried to leave a comment on the page, but, like always, my comment was mistakenly auto-rejected as spam, and since Shift East has no contact form or email address, I’m instead posting my thoughts here.
In the full post, which is loaded with nice pictures, and which I encourage you to take a look at, Shift East writer Thomas Glucksmann-Smith provides a great explanation of the concept of “soft power,” how PSY and Gangnam Style fit into it, and why the two became so popular in the West (or at least in the US) so quickly and so powerfully.
He then goes on to say
PSY’s limited impact in Japan reflects the lack of Korean soft power spread through these music videos. For one thing most Japanese regarded the videos as stupid rather than funny and so were less inclined to share it with their friends, the fact that PSY was a relative no-body before the video went viral meant Japanese would not be interested and finally there are enough slap-stick, satirical comedians in Japan everyday on TV for Japanese people to care than much about PSY.
So the fact that PSY was Korean, probably had nothing to do with the limited reception in Japan.
What is meant by this last sentence? Is Glucksmann-Smith referring to the potential belief that PSY’s lack of popularity in Japan has something to do with regional tensions, with political or ethnic anti-Korean attitudes? If that’s what he means, I agree completely. I’m no expert in the contemporary regional tensions and ethnic sentiments, but I definitely get the impression that Korean pop culture remains very popular in Japan, and that political tensions, therefore, have nothing to do with it.
By contrast, I think it is precisely because K-Pop is already so popular, and so mainstream, in Japan, that PSY and Gangnam Style did not see the kind of overnight, viral popularity that it did here in the US. PSY’s appeal in the US, I think, stems chiefly from how different he and his music video are from what we are used to. They’re perceived as crazy, wacky, exotic, weird, silly… and yet, for the Japanese, this sort of thing is totally mainstream. Everything in this video that we take to be hilariously, wonderfully, wacky and strange, they see as perfectly typical of the music & music videos they’re used to (i.e. K-pop and J-pop music videos).
The real question, for me, is why did only PSY get so virally popular in the West, in a mainstream way, when everyone from SMAP and AKB48 to Girls’ Generation and Big Bang are making music and videos with very similar aesthetics, similar wackiness and exoticness (to the Western eye)?
My best guess is that, in part at least, it may have something to do with gender. Groups like Big Bang, and indeed a lot of “boy bands” in Japan and Korea, can be quite androgynous in their aesthetic, focusing on pretty boys and even crossdressing, a particular aesthetic of soft, gentle male beauty and an association with fashion that we might here in the US call “metrosexual.” Mainstream US society can still be quite conservative when it comes to gender performance, and this is a sort of masculinity that, I’d wager, not only doesn’t appeal, but is outright rejected by the American mainstream drive to constantly prove one’s macho manliness. The stigma of being a pussy, a nancy-boy, a sissy, or “gay” remains too strong in the US for the door to be open for these alternative masculinities.* In short, PSY fits our American definitions of masculinity better than, for example, G-Dragon (right), and is therefore more acceptable, more palatable, to mainstream America.**
This gendered interpretation, I think, not only explains why PSY was able to catch on in America where so many other Korean and Japanese acts did not (not in nearly as big, widespread, viral, mainstream a way), but I think it’s also a big part of why PSY was not so popular in Japan, where K-pop is so widely popular. As a post on Kotaku.com explains, quoting precisely the same source as a RocketNews24 post,
the reason K-Pop became so popular in Japan in the first place is because Korean artists are known for being beautiful, so PSY looked completely out of place on screen. Even if he debuted in Japan, I don’t think he would have sold very much.”
The stereotype in Japan is that Korean stars are extremely attractive. The men are handsome and kind. There was even a stereotype, based on Korean soap operas, that Korean men were nicer than Japanese men.
What do you think? Why has PSY achieved such viral popularity in the US, while so many other Korean and Japanese pop stars have not?
*Though, to be clear, I don’t think that Korean or Japanese society are necessarily more open/liberal with these things. I believe, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that in South Korea and Japan today, being gay is still generally not very widely accepted; there is still a strong expectation that these performers, like all men in society, will adhere to Korean/Japanese notions of masculine gender roles in their personal relationships, and otherwise in their everyday lives off-camera. Much like how Takarazuka stars retire to become stereotypical Japanese housewives rather than living the rest of their lives as gender-bending societal rebels, here too, as in many realms, there is an expectation that performance is just performance, and that real-life should adhere to societal norms. Here in the US, we do not have as much of a separation, allowing for us to see performance as just performance – allowing people, in other words, to dress and look and behave however they wish onstage, including crossdressing or genderbending acts, without the public assuming that performer to be a genderbender in everyday life as well, and thus attracting whatever stigmas are associated with it.
**Though, the more I look at different K-pop stars, including G-Dragon, the more I get the sense that even with the pink hair and soft features, Korean singers are still, often, performing a more macho, street, tough masculinity than is typical among Japanese performers. We’ll be discussing gender & K-pop in one of my seminars in a couple weeks, so maybe I’ll be able to come back to this subject with more to say, or with deeper/better insights and understandings.