In the last few months, South Korean rapper PSY has experienced explosive popularity in the U.S. His hit, “Gangnam Style,” has reached over 700 million views on Youtube. He has been featured on numerous talk shows, the cover of Billboard magazine and he closed the American Music Awards on Nov. 18 with MC Hammer.
PSY has previously released six albums in his 12-year music career in Korea. He is working on an international album that is slated to release in February or March and he has revealed on a UK talk show that his next single will have a sports concept.
Will PSY eventually drop from the American radar, or is this just the beginning of a potential wave of K-pop music in the States? Numerous news articles have been predicting this for a while, citing such top Korean acts like Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, 2NE1 and BIGBANG to lead the K-pop wave.
Korean artists have tried, with varying levels of success. Girls’ Generation released a Korean and English version of their single, “The Boys,” and performed the song on The Late Show With David Letterman and Live! With Kelly and Michael. K-pop queen BoA released an English album with little success. Fellow star Se7en was met with a similar fate. The Wonder Girls opened for The Jonas Brothers World Tour in 2009, but their time away from Korea caused a considerable dip in popularity at home and not much headway made here.
The anomaly in PSY’s case was that he wasn’t trying to break out in the U.S. He released his single in South Korea and the music video went viral. The song had a catchy dance that anyone could do. However, this is PSY’s style. If one checks out his past singles, such as “Right Now” and “Korea,” the same elements are there. PSY is not representative of what K-pop consists of. He’s considered somewhat controversial and a rather successful anomaly at home. Watch a music video by TVXQ or the Wonder Girls and one will see a drastically different style. Unlike the aforementioned K-pop acts, PSY has complete control over his image and music.
For a K-pop act to succeed in the U.S., they have a variety of issues to overcome.
Language: The first, and obvious, skill a K-pop act would need is strong English-speaking skills. They would not only need to be able to sing English songs, but be able to communicate with the press entirely in English. PSY had the advantage because he attended Boston University and Berklee College of Music and learned English that way. K-pop acts would have to acculturate themselves and live in the States for a period of time to truly learn the language, something that their management companies may not want to risk. The Korean music industry is tough because tastes change quickly and popularity can rise or fall in a couple of months. Artists must be constantly in the spotlight in some way in order to stay relevant. The Wonder Girls faced this problem when returning home. When they left for the U.S., they were tied in popularity with Girls’ Generation. Now, their rivals have eclipsed them in popularity and the Wonder Girls are playing catch-up.
Stage Presence: PSY is charisma with a capital ‘C.’ How can a chubby Asian guy be able to do the horse dance with that much energy and not get tired? It’s a tiring dance. Korean artists must maintain that level of energy with each performance, no matter how tired they are, because they have to impress American viewers quickly. What is considered charismatic in Korea may look awkward or different here because of the culture. ‘Aegyo’ (cute) or sexy in Korea doesn’t always translate to cute or sexy in America. Many K-pop acts have choreographed dances, which are cool, but will they be able to mix it up for every performance or will they recycle the same routine for one song promotion cycle? If it’s the latter, Americans will get bored quickly.
Culture: Korean artists will have to adapt to the culture differences in America. In Korea, Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF), under the Juvenile Protection Act, can determine what is unsuitable for minors, similar to the American ratings system. How it differs is what is considered unsuitable. Songs that mention brand names, smoking, alcohol or subliminal sexual references are banned from being sold to consumers younger than 19 years of age. By those standards, most American songs couldn’t be sold in Korea. In fact, PSY’s song “Right Now,” was banned because it contained “obscene lyrics.” The specific line in question was “life is like hard liquor.” By those standards, K-pop acts will almost have to become borderline raunchy in order to have any relevancy here.
Artistic Control: Most of the big K-pop acts are completely at the mercy of their management companies. The Korean music scene mostly runs under a training system. A management company will invest thousands of dollars and train young kids for years, in which they will teach them how to sing, dance, act, model and maybe even another language in hopes of a music debut. The management company has a team of choreographers, composers and stylists that take care of the music and image aspect. Manufactured acts can be successful, but the level of control Korean management companies have over artists limits the artists’ ability to adapt. Korean acts will have to be ready to adapt and take control of their own image and music
Whether PSY will have a lasting career in the U.S. remains to be seen. If he doesn’t, he won’t really lose because he has been successful in South Korea for a number of years. Will K-pop in general succeed? Only if the general public is willing to receive it with open arms, not expecting it to be a clone copy of “Gangnam Style.”