A chubby South Korean rapper with a pair of sunglasses and a "cheesy" dance has succeeded in making a huge splash in America—despite making barely a ripple in Japan.
Psy and his hit song "Gangnam Style" have taken the United States by storm, achieving a level of fame not seen there from an Asian entertainer since the late Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto had a chart-topping hit with "Sukiyaki" in 1963.
The video for "Gangnam Style" was released in July, and the song has held on to the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Top 100 Chart for the sixth straight week. Psy has become a sensation in Australia and Britain, too, and his video on YouTube has snagged 600 million views from around the world.
In the video, Psy wriggles his hips and waves his arms in his signature "horse dance" as he sings in Korean. "Gangnam Style" refers to the opulent lifestyle of residents in the high-end Gangnam area in Seoul.
But perhaps more surprising than Psy's Western success is the cold shoulder he's gotten closer to home.
In Japan, where South Korean pop acts regularly draw huge crowds, the reception has been noticeably cool. The contrast with the United States is so stark that the online version of Time magazine carried a column saying, "If you're tired of Korean rapper Psy's ubiquitous viral hit, 'Gangnam Style,' it may be time to pack your bags for Japan."
Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank's new president, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in Tokyo in early October that Psy represents part of South Korea's economic strategy.
"They want to be the producers of the most popular culture products in the world," said Kim, a Korean-American physician.
South Korea, with a population of only 50 million, has set its sight on overseas markets to bolster revenues with its cultural exports.
Psy has, by far, been the most successful. He danced together with American pop idol Britney Spears when he appeared on a U.S. TV show in September. He even gave the star tips on success: "Dress classy and dance cheesy."
That formula seems to be working, as more traditionally polished K-pop acts continue to struggle to break into the U.S. market.
Male singing group Tohoshinki and female groups Girls' Generation and Kara wowed the audience with their impeccable dancing skills and songs sung in Japanese when they appeared in Japan Broadcasting Corp.'s prestigious year-end singing contest last year.
But while the United States embraced Psy's over-the-top style, Girls' Generation was largely ignored when it made its debut there.
Michiyo Nishimori, author of "K-pop ga Asia o seihasuru" (K-pop will dominate the Asian market), says that it is no surprise that American audiences feel at home with at least some K-pop.
"K-pop has received inspiration from the U.S. music circles," she said. " 'Gangnam Style' is danceable and is appealing to Americans."
Still, she says Psy's big break in the U.S. market was unexpected, given the piece was genuinely aimed for the domestic market.
Toshiyuki Owada, associate professor of American culture at Keio University who is well versed in popular U.S. music, says Psy's explosive popularity in Western countries is because he is a parody of the stereotypical image of an Asian.
Before around 2000, an Asian actor appearing in U.S. films and television shows typically looked comical, with hair precisely parted and a camera dangling around his neck, according to Owada.
But in recent years, characters representing a truer-to-life view of Asians have replaced that mold in many TV dramas.
"Psy resembles to the previous image of an Asian as a comical figure," Owada said. "That made him popular as a parody."
The difference in tastes—cheesy versus chic—illustrates a gap in expectations from K-pop between Japan and the Western market.
Japanese fans are after stars of the orthodox school of K-pop, while Western audiences still seek an amusing Asian entertainer.
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