Strange Boutique (October 2012)

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.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Strange Boutique (October 2012)

  1. miffy

    Ah, the William Hung analogy.
    But I would like to point that one of the reason PSY didn’t catch on Japan is because the internet still lack legitimacy over there.

    This article by the Korean Wave Research Institute is good reading
    http://newswire.seoul.co.kr/newsRead.php?no=658699

    Its very nationalistic and seems to enjoy bloodying Japanese noses but it has some points. Japan perception of Youtube is still circa 2009 where its all Cat videos and people doing stupid things in 3 mins burst
    No Nigahiga, Ray Wiiliam Johnson or original programming. Hikakin is an exception though

    It would seem to me that the internet in Japan as a form of expression is purely reserved for Otaku or cosmopolitan Japanese. Not to say the rest of the world is not nerdy, but the space has definitely diversified in the past years compared to Japan.

  2. I read that article the other day. To be honest, the guy comes over like a bit of a hysterical lunatic, but I think he’s basically right that Japan’s Internet usage patterns are different, or at least we might say that the kind of people who make a meme go viral and the kind of people who are into K-pop are going to be different people.

    Another point is that iTunes sales aren’t big enough on their own yet to influence Oricon in a major way, with chart placings still relying a lot on physical CD sales. AKB48 have gamed this situation to their advantage and have turned the whole Oricon chart system into a joke if you ask me.

    We should remember though that K-pop’s popularity in Japan wasn’t something that was forced on the Japanese by evil record company executives. The music industry here was late to the party, and TVXQ were racking up huge sales even when Johnny’s was blacklisting any TV shows that allowed non-Johnny’s boybands on Japanese screens. Kara’s Korea-only releases regularly do gangbusters business on the Japanese charts on import alone. Point is that if Japanese fans had really wanted Gangnam Style, they would have got hold of it somehow.

    That article’s point about YouTube hits having more significance that chart places sounds a bit shaky to me. I get that as overall sales drop, the charts might lose some of their lustre, but I think to pretty much anyone in the music industry one real sale counts for more than all the YouTube views in the world. I’d still say that real sales are the only really solid measure of how popular Gangnam Style really is (which appears to be “very”).

  3. miffy

    I forgotten about the Japanese girls buying CDs at Shin Okubo
    But in South East Asia, kpop is huge since Rain but Psy has leap frog everybody to the very top. You do not see this in Japan.

    I am not saying that Kpop is not huge in Japan. All I’m saying is that an artist who scored a lightning strike of a big, dumb, fun song on the internet cannot be big in Japan. Definitely not within a 3 month period unless supported by corporations

    The article does have a point (after you take away the nationalistic froth) when it comes real world value of Youtube hits. Once an official MV passed the 200 million mark within a certain period, its probably a top 10 songs on most national charts. Psy is a paradigm shift in more than just music.

    I am surprised you didn’t bring Kyary into this. Wasn’t she and her backers aiming for the same thing?

    • Sure, it’s a good point, although I felt it was a point made strongly in the linked Kotaku piece so I preferred not to rehash it.

      I thought about Kyary but in the end I had a word limit and felt I’d talked about her too much already in other articles. I think part of Gangnam Style’s Western success is actually down to its relative non-weirdness in a way. It’s a very mild, easily digestible kind of weirdness, which has eased its path into the mainstream, where something like Ponponpon genuinely does sound and look like something from another planet (even to Japanese people) and is probably a bit intimidating to Joe Bloggs who works down the chip shop.

      • miffy

        Yea, i like the actual achievement more than the song itself

        Psy is now “The Name That Cannot Be Mentioned” in Jpop forums. Riles sites like Arama to no end. Hohoho

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