Gangnam Fail: A White Guy on K-Wave's Success

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 1/01/2013 09:24:00 AM
I am verily annoyed by an FT op-ed by neoconservative stalwart Christopher Caldwell that so happens to be the most-read article in the opinion section at the moment, so please indulge me in starting off the year with a critique. (This remains a blog, after all.) I do not need to reiterate how Americans are among if not the most insular of people, profoundly unconcerned with the rest of the world. Caldwell's best-known work is a me-too "Eurabia" book peddling apocalyptic scenarios about the forthcoming takeover of Europe by Muslim migrants. It is curious how most of the authors of such books tend to be American; the implicit fear is that Europe is but a step on Islam's global takeover with the US next in line.

After unconvincingly "enlightening" us on Islamic culture's presence in Europe, Caldwell now turns his  attention to the phenomenon of Psy as a spearhead of the Korean Wave of creative industries. Displaying characteristic American insularity of the white-as-snow variety, he is rather late to the game alike his compatriots. In the rest of the world, K-Pop has been a phenomenon over a decade old which stretches from music to TV series to movies. (Lest you think I exaggerate about his cultural blinders, he even mistook Justin Beiber as an American in the op-ed prior to numerous readers pointing this out; see the correction at the bottom of the article.) Interestingly, the FT which he writes for gets this point right via Lex:
President Barack Obama has talked about it. Madonna and Ai Weiwei, among many others, have danced to it. That would be the K-wave, or the overseas export of Korean culture. This was the year that rapper Psy made the world aware, Gangnam style, of a long-running Asian phenomenon [my emphasis]. According to a survey, those who like K-Pop were more disposed to try other Korean products. It is no surprise then that Seoul convened a panel this year to see how to keep surfing the wave.
Last I checked, the Asia-conquering "Winter Sonata" telenovela began production in 2002. Moreover, I recall pirated DVDs being hawked in Los Angeles' Chinatown shortly thereafter of this and other Korean series that had become popular throughout Asia before torrents dealt away with having to mess around with disks.

However, the most profound and insightful misunderstanding from Caldwell that instead demonstrates the white man's blindness is his attribution of the success of American cultural products to its economic might. By the same token, we should see the emergence of more global cultural artifacts like Psy (or at least in America that are evident to white people) as the US becomes mired in economic stagnation:
What the US has is not a national genius but wealth, prestige and glamour. The world is always curious about how wealthy, prestigious and glamorous people dance, fight and fall in love. If this is correct, then the American misjudgment of what other people are really buying from them is going to turn out to be a costly mistake. Obviously, the producers and venture capitalists who drive the entertainment industry will happily turn their focus towards any country that can produce blockbusters...

Should the US reputation for mismanagement, profligacy and trillion-dollar government deficits continue to grow, non-US corporate executives will at some point ask why they are paying an architect to design a conference room like those in Manhattan. Why not get one like they have in Pudong? By the same token, why not ask how people are dressing in Gangnam rather than in South Beach? Culture follows wealth, prestige and glamour. As the US share of these declines, the world’s viewers may come to prefer Sleepless in Seoul to Sleepless in Seattle.
If wealth determines pop culture success, how would Caldwell explain the following:
  • As he himself understands, "Gangnam Style" does not laud the lifestyles of the rich and famous in South Korea but is rather a critique of self-important residents in one of its tonier locales;
  • Rap music (without which "Gangnam Style" would not have emerged) as a critique of inequality and racism in a supposedly egalitarian, equal opportunity society;
  • Reggae music emerging from the country of, er, Jamaica--not exactly high on wealth, prestige or glamour but rather poverty, crime and homicide;
  • Rhythm and blues, jazz, soul, and other African-American genres receiving massive international success instead of, say, square dances and barbershop quartets;
  • For an Anglo idiom, how about punk which sneers at Caldwell-esque notions of whitebread well-being.
In other words, ascribing the success of cultural products to keeping up with the lifestyles of the rich and famous is dubious. If we followed the simplistic Caldwell recipe for the success of cultural exports, why is the world's richest nation in per capita terms, Qatar, not a powerhouse in music and movies? If he were enrolled in a cultural studies course and presented this inept argument, Caldwell would get an "F" straight away.

To me, there are many more things that help determine pop culture success--including deft marketing. In reality, much K-Wave is alike its American equivalent in being superficially attractive but ultimately vapid. Interestingly, this line of criticism often emanates from Koreans themselves. Of course good-looking people singing and dancing tend to catch the eye more. What the Koreans have done which many of their Asian peers have not really achieved is to imbue entertainment products with high production values--choreography, cinematography, costumes, lighting and so forth that approach the best global standards. That they happen to be (mostly) in Korean language doesn't necessarily mean that Korean culture is ascendant, but again that they are able to combine high production values to messages Asians can relate to which Westerners occasionally get, Oppa Gangnam Style. Ever bothered to read its lyrics translated into English? We're not exactly dealing with KRS-One here. It's mostly commerce; that's all.

I tired long ago of people living in their whitebread world trying to explain everything else in Amerocentric terms whether in IPE or elsewhere. That's part of why this blog exists--to present an informed (non-white) counterargument. Caldwell is clearly among the worst offenders.