The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Before you click away, we have something to ask you…

Do you value independent journalism that focuses on the issues that matter? Do you think Canada needs more in-depth, fact-based reporting? So do we. If you’d like to be part of the solution, we’d love it if you joined us in working on it.

The Tyee is an independent, paywall-free, reader-funded publication. While many other newsrooms are getting smaller or shutting down altogether, we’re bucking the trend and growing, while still keeping our articles free and open for everyone to read.

The reason why we’re able to grow and do more, and focus on quality reporting, is because our readers support us in doing that. Over 5,000 Tyee readers chip in to fund our newsroom on a monthly basis, and that supports our rockstar team of dedicated journalists.

Join a community of people who are helping to build a better journalism ecosystem. You pick the amount you’d like to contribute on a monthly basis, and you can cancel any time.

Help us make Canadian media better by joining Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

Crossover Culture, Gangnam Style

Talented Eastern entertainers have long been stuck in global stardom's margins. How a hugely viral Korean video broke through.

By Andrew Lam 12 Oct 2012 |

New America Media editor Andrew Lam is author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora which won a Pen American Award in 2006, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, which was listed as one of top 10 Indies by Shelf Unbound Magazine. His next book, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in 2013. He has lectured widely at many universities.

Anthropologists and linguists no doubt are having a field day trying to chronicle and dissect how, in the early autumn of 2012, "Gangnam Style" became an American idiomatic expression. It stands for something along the lines of a brash, flamboyant way of doing things, clownishness, or an act of in-your-face spoofing that is both original and entertaining.

A recently set up Wikipedia page showcases "Gangnam Style" as the most watched YouTube video of the year. It has garnered 430 million hits and counting since July, and has spun off countless other videos. Among them: North Korea's own version to spoof a South Korean presidential candidate, and the "Mitt Romney Style" spoof video.

And the genius behind the dance that mimics riding an invisible horse? Jae-Sang Park, erstwhile Psy (short for psycho), a rapper whose career galloped into global superstardom with the distinction of topping the iTunes charts in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and 28 other countries. Psy's video is also the most "liked" on YouTube, as well as the most-watched video in Korean entertainment history.

But something beyond Korean history has clearly occurred with the global sanctification of Psy. It's the history of crossover itself, the phenomenon that has traditionally been treacherous and cruel, with so many talented entertainers from the Far East or elsewhere at the margins of the Commonwealth falling off the tightrope on the way to global stardom.

To cross over, as far as the world of arts and entertainment is concerned, is to go from the margin to the centre, from one set of culture to another, trying to succeed in the latter. But, as a rule, it demands the betrayal of the original, and it requires reinvention -- something nearly impossible for those who are entrenched in their own language and cultural sensibilities.

Take the case of Hong Kong actors Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan, and the South Korean singer Bi Rain. Bi Rain, with his extraordinary dancing skills and teenage heartthrob status, is known all over Asia as its own Michael Jackson. But Rain met with drought in North America, where he starred in two movies that flopped, and his bid for global stardom quickly failed. Chow Yun Fat, voted by LA Times as "the coolest actor" in the world in the mid-'90s, too failed in Hollywood, in part because that very Hong Kong coolness turned lukewarm in Hollywood movies, and the hard boiled image that made him famous in the East came off as stilted in the West. Having bombed at the box office with his action movies, Chow ended up playing a stereotypical hideous character in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. His role was deemed so offensive that it was cut in the version shown in China.

Jackie Chan, the most successful of them all, is worthy of note for his repeated attempts over three decades as an action star in Hollywood. When he finally made it big he was, alas, already steeped in middle age.

From margin to centre

Then came Psy, whose cross over moment seems to suggest a major shift in the history of the entertainment world itself. For one thing, it turns the old rules upside down: that crossing over requires giving up the original way of doing things, that the odds are stacked against those who try, and that it takes years of toiling and perseverance, even for the super sexy, cool and talented. Or, at the very least, you have to leave your home country to do so.

Well, not anymore, not if you do it Gangnam Style. The first thing for cultural critics to take note is the speed with which a cultural event can transmit these global days: Psy bursts like a supernova from regional to world stage in a few weeks time, and he didn’t even need to leave Seoul. The second thing to take note of is equally important, if not more so: His video, performed in Korean, is downloaded largely by people who don’t understand one word of the language.

Psy, mindful of this, told NPR recently: "If I have a chance I want my music lyric[s] to be Korean... The world's most famous and popular language is music. So if we have some sort of solution with these kinds of dance moves and this kind of music video so that I can use Korean if possible? It's really huge history for my country."

In other words, since he didn't try to crossover, but the phenomenon nevertheless crossed him, why not continue to do what he does best? It is the kind of thinking that may very well revolutionize the margin in its relationship to the center.

Let's look at it another way: All major recording stars from England and North America do not worry about crossovers to the rest of the known world. There's an undeniable centrality to the West. From The Beatles to Beyoncé to Lady Gaga, western stars are idolized the world over, their songs memorized, even if their adoring fans don't understand English. Broadcasting from the centre, one has no need for translation. Whatever is good for the West is deemed good enough for the rest of the world.

Such is the shape of the powers and unwritten rule taught subliminally long ago -- going from West to East, as well as elsewhere, since the European conquest of the known world 500 years ago has always been a passage of relative ease. It does not demand transformation or self-reinvention from a Westerner. It is catered to.

The reverse, however, has always been a difficult path, an enormous undertaking. An American moving to Vietnam to work and live, for instance, need not speak Vietnamese to thrive; his language is coveted and his status assumed superior. On the other hand, a Vietnamese who hopes to make it big in the United States needs to master the English language at the very least.

The significance of Gangnam Style video is extraordinary in that it refutes that assumption: it assumes a centrality all on its own. It sets its own terms, has its own rhythm, and it dwells in its own particularities.

Cultural alchemy, naturally

Yet, its rise to universality is no fluke. Its success occurs when the world is shifting in radical ways, at a time when individuals, empowered by the information technology, can change world history. Witness the video that vilified the Prophet Mohammed by a Christian Coptic Egyptian living in California a month ago that caused massive protests against the U.S. and undermined America's foreign soft policy in the Middle East, or the Tunisian fruit seller whose self immolation a year earlier was captured on cell phones and broadcasted online. It ignited the Arab Spring, leading to regime changes in several countries.

The Oppa Gangnam Style video also arrived at a moment when the East is integrating with the West at full speed, reiterating the idea that globalization is no longer a one-way love affair. It arrived at a time when yoga replaced aerobics, acupuncture and herbal treatment are alternative choices for treating chronic diseases, and the world’s children are enthralled by Japanese anime and manga, and kung-fu becomes norm for action films.

That a South Korean video gained global stardom is also no fluke. South Korea, after all, actively supports its artists and totes its pop culture abroad as part of its foreign policy. It takes as much pride in its economic rise as it does in its cultural ascendancy. It even built a Hallyu -- Korean Wave -- museum at the Incheon Airport to celebrate its global stars and their achievements. It is a country that insists on its own centrality and its own growing contribution to the cultural matrix that defines modern Asia.

Indeed, in Asia there is an old dream of resistance. It was first a dream of 19th century Japan after the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war. It imagined the continent as one, a continuous land, its people interconnected. That idea was resuscitated by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore a century later, during the rise of Asian economic powers in the post Cold War era. While Lee spurred the phrase "Asian Values," nearby Malaysia's leader, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, came up with a similar "Look East Policy."

But those ideas had been more or less top down, militaristic, and largely ideological -- a regional chauvinistic reaction to its colonial past, and a need to assert its newfound prowess against Western influences. What is happening now, a couple of generations later, however, is much more organic, solidly on the cultural ground and hardly anti-West.

Gangnam Style, after all, is a rap song. And its rise occurs at a time when ours has become a world in which traditions exist side by side for the borrowing and taking, and ultimately, the mixing. And it would seem that in a world where cultural integration and hybridization are the norm, all forms of art could become both at once intensely global and local.

Indeed, from religion to cuisine, from medicine to music, from dance to literature, from agricultural practices to filmmaking, all are available to the contemporary alchemists to reshape and re-imagine. The playing field is slowly being leveled.

So if America could make a movie called Kung Fu Panda and turn it into a number one hit in China, then it follows that a Korean artist, too, can rise to the top of the music chart in America, riding an invisible horse and rapping in his own language -- Gangnam Style, of course.  [Tyee]

Read more: Music

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Are You Preparing for the Next Climate Disaster?

Take this week's poll