It’s entirely possible that this month’s Strange Boutique will land me in hot water with the K-Pop fan mafia, since some of them appear to have taken Psy’s Gangnam Style to heart as some sort of nationalist totem, which is ironic since the song is a pretty thinly concealed satire attacking some aspects of Korean culture. Of course that aspect of the song is meaningless in both Japan and the West, so comparing the disparity in the song’s success in those respective markets needs to focus on other aspects of it.
I had to take a few shortcuts, so hopefully I can clear most of them up here. Firstly, the comment at the end comparing Gangnam Style to The Macarena wasn’t quite the throwaway diss it might seem. As a piece of pop music, The Macarena succeeds in every way that Gangnam Style does — catchy, beat-driven, easily imitatable dance routine — and the pattern of its success is pretty much the definition of the summer novelty dance craze template. There are differences in the role the Web has played in disseminating the video, and Psy’s deal with Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun suggests that Psy himself might personally be able to move his career onward, although I’d suggest that despite his obvious talent as a songwriter/producer, the role he’s found himself established in as a quirky Asian goofball means he’ll struggle to maintain consistent interest in his musical output.
From Japan’s point of view, I think it’s interesting also that Gangnam Style is basically a streamlined take on the same rap-pop hybrid, Bollywood-tinged house beat that producer Teddy Park often does with bands like 2NE1 and Big Bang — it’s almost the YG Entertainment “house style” — so on pretty much every level, there’s nothing in Gangnam Style that Japan hasn’t already seen. I’m sure it could have been a sizeable hit here with promotional backing and a few TV appearances, but it was never going to make the same sort of, erm, “Big Bang” (sorry) that it made in the Occident.
I’ve also been a bit loose with my use of the word “Asian” to encompass several cultures. Obviously Japan and Korea are quite distinct from each other, although when it comes to marketing their pop culture in the West, they will inevitably find themselves in the same boat a lot of the time since all Asian cultures tend to suffer from similar “Orientalised” stereotypes in Western cultural marketplaces. Remember, this is pop music and we’re always going to be dealing in broad strokes. The trick is to go beyond the stereotype rather than abandon it. Hikaru Utada was never going to do anything by trying to be accepted as just another pop star, but 2NE1 might do rather better by hitching their image to a sexy 1930s Shanghai-meets-2019 LA neon retro cyberpunk image as they do in the video for I Love You.