About a year ago I asked a young Korean woman who the most famous Korean was in America. “Rain?” she guessed, and I shook my head. “Kim Yeona?” No. “JY Park?” No. “The Wondergirls?” No. “Kang Ho-dong?” No, god no. Who, I continued, was the only Korean every single American knew of? “MC Mong?” No. “2PM?” No. “BoA?” No. Who was the only Korean who happened to be a household name? “John Cho?” No. “Margaret Cho?” No. “No Hong Chul?” No. All of them are near complete unknowns in America, and could safely walk the most crowded streets without attracting half as much attention as my mixed race son does here in Korea.
The answer, of course, was Kim Jong-il, rest his potbellied soul.
While the Korean media often refers to the top celebrities here as world stars, as if to underscore the fact that they are not world famous, I do think there is some truth to a statement made by one of my friends in America, that Korea is the cultural capital of Asia. These people I mentioned may be unknown in the West, but their faces were plastered all over Thailand and Laos when my wife and I went there, and on several occasions random non-Koreans came up to her and talked about who their favorite Korean celebrities were. Even the comedians, who strike most Westerners as being either boring or childish, were in favor; while in America most people seemed to think that my wife was either Chinese or Japanese, partly because no Korean-born celebrity has ever become a celebrity in America.
This situation may finally be changing with Psy, who in the last few weeks has achieved a level of success in America never attained by any Korean. There was a recent attempt by Girls’ Generation to break into the American Scene on Letterman that predictably fizzled, while Rain’s amusing Colbert dance-off went nowhere, along with a couple of worthless action movies, one of which was about ninjas, rather than Korea’s own seonbi or Hwarang Flower Warriors, presumably because Rain’s producer’s desperation to make it in the West far outweighed their own patriotic hatred of Japan. We’ll give these Americans something they already know, the producers may have reasoned, rather than something new.
There was nothing new or Korean about these actors or pop stars anyway—in that video on the Colbert Report, Rain might as well just be Michael Jackson if Michael Jackson had decided to be Asian rather than white. Speaking of which, most of these singers have rhinoplastied the living daylights out of their faces in the name of looking as white as possible (ahem, the Girls’ Generation nonuplets), dancing around in Western-style studios with Western-style outfits and Western-style dance moves that are all done better by the people they are striving to imitate. Cheaper imitation cars and electronics may sell in America, but cheaper imitation celebrities don’t. Why, after all, should Americans like watching Koreans doing things that Americans do better? Why do we need Lee Hyo-ree when we already have Britney Spears?
There were numerous other attempts by numerous other Korean artists to become famous in America, and all have failed except for Psy. Koreans and observers of Korean Pop Culture are all probably wondering why, some saying he’s a star because he criticizes Korea’s conspicuous consumption, a subject few Americans know anything about. The simple fact is that his music video is actually entertaining, while most of the celebrities I’ve mentioned are not, and at best are always, Samsung-like, one or two steps behind their American counterparts. The man is also Korean, without a hint of any plastic surgery, and he’s dancing around in Korea, which is interesting—those crazy apartment buildings and swan boats haven’t been seen in any music videos until today, I’m sure. As with The Host, Koreans succeed when their films focus on the weirdness of this place, and stop genuflecting before the West. The guy’s moves are original. It’s not just about the social commentary. It’s about the man’s simple talent, and his Korean-ness.
Right this second the heads of JYP Entertainment are working on thousands of different ways to rip this video off, watching it and thinking: But this isn’t the Korea we want everyone to see! This Korea is too…Korean!