There is more to K-pop than ‘Gangnam Style’

Psy’s YouTube sensation is fun, but it's not a patch on the joys awaiting Western fans who want to explore Korean pop.

Promi Ferdousi

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Already viewed more than 400million times on YouTube, the hilarious video for Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ has introduced Western society to a whole new world of entertainment that originates from South Korea. But how much has Psy really contributed to the world of K-pop? And to what extent has he successfully represented the genre to fresh ears?

At first glance, the video for ‘Gangnam Style’ is comical, colourful and crazy; when coupled with a foreign tongue and a catchy beat, it is no wonder it has been such an internet hit. The gimmicky horse dance and uncountable number of explosions just add to the hilarity. But the special element that enables the chubby Korean rapper to drill into the viewers’ minds is the hook ‘Oppa Gangnam Style’. It’s the perfect mix of alien and familiar words that gets the crowd chanting regardless of whether they understand or not. Psy’s style is satirical and ironic, almost mocking the lavish lifestyle of some South Koreans. (Gangnam is an affluent area of the South Korean capital, Seoul, that has been widely compared to Beverly Hills.)

The song is about going ‘all the way’. Whether it’s a sexual reference or a metaphor for his career, it is obvious that Psy carefully wrote these lyrics to appeal to an audience that would appreciate superficiality without conservative ideas, unlike native Koreans who opt for love songs and exotic hybrid rapping. Psy is known as the ‘Bizarre Singer’ in Korea for his explicit lyrics and acerbic sense of humour, so his willingness to play the cuddly pop star in the West is unexpected. Many K-pop fans are speculating that ‘Gangnam Style’ is an experiment to deconstruct the workings of social media. If so, it’s clearly been a successful experiment given the millions who have been watching his video over and over again.

Experiment or not, this absurd artist is being dubbed a ‘Korean pop star’ by many reputable publications, including Rolling Stone. But there is more to K-pop than Asian men running around like horses and upturning coaches full of enthused pensioners. K-pop is built on hard work. Each artist has to go through years of training in vocals, dance, acrobatics, composing, rapping and acting. The music is a mixture of R’n’B, hip-hop and electronica which has evolved into a distinctive K-pop sound. This unique sound, along with the godly good looks of the stars and their devotion to their fans, is what attracts fans to K-pop from around the world.

‘Gangnam Style’ is about sex and pretty women, topics more in tune with Western rather than Korean sensibilities. To experienced K-pop fans, the song is a sarcastic depiction of Korean popular culture. The singer’s success worldwide highlights a bitter reality that overshadows many K-pop idols. Psy’s four-minute joke has managed to find its way into our clubs while the best K-pop songs are limited to niche groups on social-media websites. Psy has achieved the success that K-pop idols can only dream about – not in sincere way, but by appealing to humour.

Still, if Psy’s success has whetted your appetite for Korean music, there is plenty of good material to discover. Indeed, given the existing success of K-pop stars worldwide, one might even ask: ‘Where have you been?’

Psy’s own label mates from YG Entertainment are brilliant musicians. Epik High, arguably one of the top rap groups since the rap movement brought about by Drunken Tiger, have taken Korea by storm with their hip-hop sound and powerful lyrics. Other stablemates include quintet idol group Big Bang and female group 2NE1, who are currently on a global tour and have sold out in venues across the world from USA to China and even Malaysia. Big Bang are known for their heavily hip-hop laden records layered with strong vocals and complex harmonies. The group won one of MTV’s European Music Awards, beating Britney Spears in the Best Worldwide category, and have also featured in Time magazine. 2NE1 debuted in 2009 but they are already at the top of the game, and are planning to release an English album in 2012 due to high demand globally.

Outside YG Entertainment, Rain is known as the ‘world star’ due to his success all over the planet, especially in Japan, China, USA, Singapore, Thailand and Canada. The multilingual and multitalented star has contributed towards the emergence of Korean pop in North America. He was mentioned in a Time magazine article as one of the world’s most influential figures and also grabbed a place in People’s 2007 list of the most beautiful people. (It is unfortunate that Rain has been called in for mandatory military service during such a prosperous era for K-pop.) There are many more groups and artists to explore, too.

For those who have followed the rise of K-pop, from when it began in the early Nineties to its peak commercial success now, ‘Gangnam Style’ seems boring by comparison. Psy is an eccentric genius who utilises the internet to appeal to America. We all know succeeding in America for Koreans is a mark of achievement, but because Psy is not a characteristically K-pop star, fans humour his accomplishment while preferring other, more authentic K-pop artists. ‘Gangnam Style’ was supposed to be joke and that is how majority of real K-pop fans (including me) view it.

Promi Ferdousi attended the 2012 Young Journalists’ Academy. Read her blog K-pop guide for noobs here.

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