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PSY the Clown vs. PSY the “Anti-American”: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity

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I came to “Gangnam Style” as most Americans did, with zero knowledge of PSY or his career before his viral video, which is now nearing one billion views and is my one-year-old daughter’s obsession. I was won over immediately by the video’s humor—Exhibit A: the random explosions. But unlike most Americans, I quickly learned what the lyrics mean. My wife is Korean, and as the video got more and more hits and my family became bigger and bigger fans, I learned about PSY’s history and reputation within Korea as someone controversial, iconoclastic, and downright strange (his nickname is “the Bizarre Singer”). Soon I started to wonder what it means that the average American viewer doesn’t care about the lyrics, and what people see when they watch the video without that context. Why do people (white people) like it so much? And do they like it for different reasons than I do?

I can’t help but see the character PSY plays in the video as a certain Asian stereotype, and I can’t help but point out that knowing how the lyrics are critiquing the rich residents of Seoul’s Gangnam district, lovers of coffee and brand names and partying, makes a huge difference in how you see PSY as either a stereotype or a rapper critiquing that stereotype.

The author’s daughter.

What I mean is, the video can be seen (and enjoyed) in two different ways: 1) as a video with quirky humor, a catchy beat, a fun and child-friendly dance, and a goofy dancer/rapper, or 2) (if you’re Korean or have a Korean wife or someone else to explain PSY and the lyrics and the district in Seoul, and if you look carefully at the rich neighborhood versus PSY’s self-representation as someone who doesn’t fit that model) as full of all of those aforementioned things, plus satire. Sure, it’s goofy, but the goofiness is making a point about Korea’s 1%. The representation of a man who wants a party girl who can afford to drink coffee, as the lyrics say, is put forth ironically. Somewhere along the way, that irony was lost.

A few weeks after my wife showed me the “Gangnam Style” video, I came across this essay at Racialicous (reprinted from init_music): “PSY and the Acceptable Asian Man.” From the essay:

You only have to look at a handful of other Asian and Asian American men that have made any impression in mainstream American music to guess what role PSY fits. Just this year, Korean American Heejun Han made it to the elusive top ten of American Idol and, while his buttery baritone did cut muster, it was his off-stage antics as a hilariously deadpan prankster that the public particularly reacted to. Before Han, the other Asian male that made any particular impact in American mainstream music was William Hung. Yeah.

That’s right: alongside clowns from other mediums like Ken Jeong (and yellow-face disgraces like Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunoishi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s), PSY fits right into the mainstream-friendly role of Asian male jester, offering goofy laughs for all and, thanks to PSY’s decidedly non-pop star looks, in a very non-threatening package. Psy doesn’t even have to sing in English or be understood because it’s not the social critique offered by the lyrics that matters to the audience, but the marriage of the funny music video, goofy dance, and rather catchy tune, of which two…elements are comical and, again, non-threatening.

The question is: If you take the PSY in the video at face value, absent of irony, are you left with an emasculated overweight horse-dancing clownish foreigner? And what does it say if this is what most Americans see and if they love the video despite (because?) of it?

In Korea, PSY has a history of breaking the rules. Of being—as Jeff Yang puts it in the Wall Street Journal—“as close to a bad-boy punk as K-Pop gets.” The more I learned about PSY, the more I didn’t get his popularity for this video in particular or his satisfaction with that popularity, which means he has to dance like a horse for Western crowds who don’t see the joke in it, unless that joke is him. I mean, I get it because I get the idea of the kind of Asian whom America will accept and the allure of fame/money, but I don’t get it because it doesn’t seem like PSY fit this personality before. And yet there he is on Ellen and other talk shows, gracious and well behaved, far from a K-Pop “bad boy.”

Interestingly, the current news has brought the old PSY into the public eye because of “anti-American” statements PSY made in two protest songs earlier in his career. One came out during protests over the murder of two Korean girls by American soldiers who drove over the girls in a tank, and one during protests over the Iraq War, American torture of terrorism suspects, and the effects of the war on less involved countries (in this case, a Korean evangelist was beheaded on live video while terrorists blamed America).

싸이 rap :
이라크 포로를 고문해 댄 씨발양년놈들과
고문 하라고 시킨 개 씨발 양년놈들에
딸래미 애미 며느리 애비 코쟁이 모두 죽여
아주 천천히 죽여 고통스럽게 죽여

PSY Rap:
Kill those fucking Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those fucking Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully

PSY has apologized for the lyrics. In one of the first English articles to report on the protest songs, writer Bobby McGill suggests wisely that some will like PSY more for his past while some will turn their backs on him. McGill is writing from Korea, where people understand the context PSY came from.

The American context is quite different, as it subtracts the subversiveness, as well as PSY’s history and identity within Asia, from the “Gangnam Style” video. Is the PSY who sang those protest lyrics the “real” PSY? Is that a PSY Americans could accept? So far, people have been happy to take the goof without the message—why is that?

***

Recently, I have been emailing with the editor of a new Asian American anthology, Where Are You From?, about his essay in the book, which discusses a “heteronormative” or “traditional” masculinity and the idea that Asian American men should pursue that masculinity, i.e., be more assertive, more aggressive. He makes a lot of interesting points. But I find myself wondering if his essay is encouraging something similar to what the majority culture does by assigning us an identity according to our skin color. Talking about so-and-so as if it is or is not our nature, as if Asian Americans have a nature, is not an assumption I am comfortable with. Not just because “Asia” encompasses many different cultures and many different cultural views of masculinity, but also because, damn, I hate to be lumped in. Everyone has his personal idea of what being a man means. That’s one of the reasons I can feel secure with myself as a sensitive writer dad, a guy who cries when his feelings are hurt.

My wife, a native Korean, has a conception of the Korean man as one who never shows pain or weakness, who fights other men, who protects women, who is the main breadwinner, who changes the light bulbs. This Korean man, though he is also the type who isn’t embarrassed by holding a purse, is mostly in keeping with the “heteronormative” masculinity talked about in the Where Are You From? anthology as characteristic of white men. Sometimes it bothers my wife that I complain when I am hurt, that I am sensitive about certain topics, that I express my insecurities, that I cry. Sometimes she asks me whether this is what American men are like.

I’m an adoptee and was raised by white parents, Polish and Irish American, with their Western view of masculinity. I could also feel the way people wanted me to fit into an idea of the type of Asian male they were comfortable with. Both sides made it hard to be myself. I was often described as quiet, studious, easygoing, book-smart but not street-smart, and some of these descriptions stuck in a self-fulfilling way. It took me much of my life to realize that I was molding myself to a stereotype. I wanted to be accepted, so I valued those characteristics that made me acceptable. Yet I was never accepted. I was either picked on and called “flatface” or would hear people whisper that they shouldn’t mess with me because of course I knew karate. When I was able to start processing how I fit or didn’t fit an acceptable representation of Asians, I held those same stereotypes against the people I met who looked like me. In college, I refused to join the Asian American group because I felt they were too studious, too earnest, too cliquish. Instead, I valued white friendships, white girlfriends, white literature and art and film. I tried to be more assertive but was paralyzed with fear. Whichever role I tried to fit, I didn’t value myself. I didn’t see how I had internalized the same descriptions that the majority culture employs to keep “us” separate from “them.”

***

I remember a road trip one summer with two Asian American women and one Puerto Rican woman, from Connecticut down to North Carolina. I had just begun to acknowledge some of the identity issues brewing in me, but I wasn’t yet interested in exploring them—I still have plenty of denial about who I am. I was in love with these girls. I had the idea back then, since the few women who had hit on me were almost exclusively Asian, that Asian American women had lower standards for Asians. This is how I thought of it. I had an insecure kind of confidence around Asian women but was simply insecure around white women, and I thought it was because white people were inherently more attractive and I stood more of a chance if compared to someone on my level. This is hard to admit. It’s hard to write about right now, knowing that people I know and respect will see how much I didn’t know or respect myself. I wanted badly for these girls to want me. They weren’t interested, of course. They were open about who they were. They were self-referential, self-aware, and race-aware. I remember they joked about how white guys fetishized Asian women, even as one of them dated a white guy. I remember wanting, acutely, both to be white and to be the kind of minority they so easily were, to be comfortable with myself. I wasn’t comfortable. I wanted to be Asian as a fallback for when I wasn’t able (of course) to be white.

One of the women was having a relationship crisis with a man she had nicknamed Jesus—no lie. I was giving her advice. I said Jesus wouldn’t call immediately. I constructed a man out of heteronormative stereotypes. I thought that this must be the kind of guy who got such beautiful women to like him, the kind of guy I was never really like. I pretended to know because I thought it would make me seem like him, that it would make me seem more normative.

The women in that car treated me very nicely, though they must have seen how desperate I was. I think I had just broken up with my long-term (white) girlfriend. I had a lot going on. And when one of them said I was a handsome guy, why didn’t I have a girlfriend, I felt like I had been right about Asian women. But I also thought, Why don’t you like me, then? I felt as if I had tried my best to fit into the person I was supposed to be, and it didn’t work for either white people or Asian people. I was a mess of longing, not seeing how confused my ideas had gotten. I wrote about these women in an essay in which I boiled down the 13 hours into ten pages that made it seem like I was so close to a connection, that made me look far better than I was.

***

When I look at pictures of PSY in the American media—and yes, I’m probably projecting, but allow me to be personal here, because my point is the individual—I see frustration. In a recent statement (that he later backed off from), he even mentioned that he was sick and tired of the horse-dance. I can see how he would be. I can see how he might hate to be so well known for a dance he’d meant as a joke and/or as social commentary. To be treated like he’s the joke, or it’s all a goof.

psy cliche

The PSY who sang those protest lyrics was someone standing up for something, someone “being real,” even if the lyrics went overboard (they did). That PSY was someone who fought the establishment, who didn’t meet the expectations of those who have the power to give attention and fame. He was in control of his reputation, then.

The power dynamics at play are fascinating to me. I know a little about the tank incident that led to PSY’s first protest song. What I know I know from talking to Koreans, in Korea, as McGill does. I will tell you what I remember people telling me, whether or not this is what happened. The incident was, and is, colored with emotion. The two Korean girls were walking down the sidewalk to a birthday party. The tank seemed to have a clear view of them. It drove straight at (over) them. The soldiers got off with a dishonorable discharge, not even the prison time an American would get for running over another American in a car, accidentally or not. The soldiers had all the power, represented by a giant tank. They killed two girls who couldn’t have been in a more innocent or helpless position. Then this same dynamic played out on a (inter)national level, as the US Army determined the fate of the soldiers while the Koreans could do nothing but watch.

Roh Moo-hyun rode the anti-American sentiment to the presidency. Koreans everywhere were devastated. The only power they could wield was through protests. PSY wielded his only power through his protest lyrics. And yet now PSY never points out the meaning of “Gangnam Style”—in fact, he even said that the song isn’t social commentary, only fun. He never refuses to do the horse-dance. He never tries to be a different person from the tuxedoed jester in the video.

We need someone Asian to become influential for standing out. For so long, Asian Americans have been sidelined or stereotyped. Now as the demographics change, Asian Americans are starting to be recognized as holding some political power. And then there’s the high representation of Asian Americans in elite schools. But all this talk of roles and demographics and model minorities does nothing to talk about Asian Americans as individuals. Even if we are seen as increasingly important as a group, who are the Asian Americans we see in the news, starring in movies, in culture? PSY is now the most powerful Asian in America. Earlier this year, I wrote a couple of essays about the other breakout Asian guy of 2012, Jeremy Lin, whom the media will not stop describing as smart, hard-working, etc., even as Asian Americans write about how he has changed how Asians are seen as athletes. PSY was always an individual in Korea, a quintessential individual, a bad boy bucking the system. And now he is apologizing for that.

For me, the new PSY doesn’t fit with the protest PSY. I am sure that I’m projecting. I am sure that it’s expecting too much of an entertainer to want him to reject what can help make him famous, in the name of a fight one might say is primarily Asian American, not Asian. But I want to be able to root for someone who “looks like me” and is willing to stand outside the cultural stereotypes, willing to be Bizarre not as an Asian, but among Asians.

I don’t condone what PSY said, though he said it in context and years ago. The lyrics about killing entire families are especially awful. But I can’t help but hope we get to see the PSY who risked making outright social critiques. I can’t help but wish we could see how a real PSY, a PSY out of the ordinary and out of the box, would fare if he weren’t the acceptable Asian.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Matthew Salesses is the author of I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying and The Last Repatriate. Follow him @salesses. More from this author →