10.13.2012

PSY: Meet New Pants (Oppum Beijing Style)


Recently, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker claimed that China won't be releasing their own Gangnam Style any time soon because of the stifling, heavy hand of the Chinese government.

Since I produce a video show about Chinese music, and have been working more or less tirelessly for the past five years to convince the Greater West about why Chinese music is worth caring about, I was personally a bit miffed by what I consider a dismissive and carelessly destructive article.


Osnos quoted an instructor and apparent expert on China and Korea that teaches at at a Korean University, who said that Chinese culture is practically incapable of satire, at least, compared to those wisecracking Koreans: "Korea tends to have more irony and satire in its comedy than China...But China, especially acting in its official, soft-power capacity, is only comfortable exporting things that show off the greatness of its ancient civilization or economic development."

Later in the article, Osnos brings up the "'Kung-Fu Panda' problem", which refers to the film of the same name, stating that "the most successful film about two of China’s national symbols—Kung Fu and pandas—could only be made by a foreigner because Chinese filmmakers would never try to play with such solemn subjects."

He mentions Chinese director Lu Chuan being stifled by the Olympics committee when commissioned to produced an animated film for the Beijing Olympics, as if the Olympics Games were a completely unremarkable, even customary, example of Chinese creativity being given the smackdown.

Finally, he gratuitously links to a comic strip from the China Digital Times, which illustrates not so subtly that Chinese people going Gangnam would be jailed, an idea that clearly goes against the reality any one of the 4,000 copy videos that have been produced in the wake of the video's popularity by Chinese fans and netizens.

Needless to say, a lot of bloggers have already come out to say that Evan Osnos was misguided.

Before we get into that, it's important to understand first how Gangnam Style is itself an anomaly in South Korean culture, far from any kind of glowing example of the coming renaissance of K-Pop music.

In The Atlantic's breakdown of Gangnam Style's impossible popularity, another expert, this time Adrian Hong, a Korean-American consultant "oft-quoted" regarding Korean issues, offered this to say in contrast: "Korea has not had a long history of nuanced satire."

The article continues at length to describe what lies in the song's crosshairs - the outlandishly wealthy Gangnam district of South Korea - and how it was construed as a symbol of conspicuous consumption.  If anything, Gangnam Style seems to be the antithesis of notoriously vacuous K-Pop music.

With this in mind, it seems silly to think of Gangnam Style as some kind of urgent, cultural wake-up call for China, as Osnos and even China's party mouthpiece The People's Daily have done.

In other words, had Gangnam Style - a video only a few months old - never been made, South Korea could arguably be considered in the same boat as China in terms of cultural output, but Osnos makes a his argument, unmistakably political, that South Korea is leaving China in the dust.

So let's get to the blogger responses.  Bradley Gardner of his eponymous blog points out that Taiwan's Jay Chou (a pure pop artist, any way you look at it) was riding a pink horse in his "hilariously campy" music video - way back in 2007.  In all fairness, that's Taiwan.

Matthew, writing for his "Expat" wordpress blog, muses that "South Korea has, by and large, followed the exact same pattern of 'manufacturing' entertainers as China," and that the Koreans themselves are even at a loss of why PSY has been so successful compared to say, the Wonder Girls, making Osnos' snipe that China doesn't have their own PSY ring hollow when no one else really does, either.

"Before Psy, the Korean singers who wanted to make it in the U.S. thought they had to do everything American style," said pop-culture critic Ha Jae-keun when speaking to the Los Angeles Times.  This hardly sounds like a creative society counterpoint to the "Kung Fu Panda" nation.

It becomes clear that Osnos' conclusion  - the stodgy Communist deciders of what constitutes a Chinese pop musical export spells doom and gloom  - is ridiculous when you realize that Korea's own pop music machine had zero to do with PSY's breakout success.  In fact, it seemed to actually serve as a boon to PSY - something for him to work against, and in opposition to, in order to define himself.

As you know, China has that kind of opposition stuff in droves, and a lot of it is driving creativity.  Liz Carter from Tea Leaf Nation reminds us of this video remix being passed around on the Chinese web of Michael Jackson's Beat It.  The original video of a Red Army choir and orchestra has become classic Chinese internet meme fodder, clearly demonstrating that nothing is too sacred for a laugh, nothing too "solemn."

Beyond remixes, copies and pastiches, it seems however that everyone else has failed to mention that China has long had its own PSY: New Pants.  Dare I say that New Pants are far better.

If you don't believe me, watch the music video for the song Love Brings Me Home off their 2007 album, Dragon Tiger Panacea.  The song is incredibly catchy, and the lyrics (Ahhhhhhhhh!  California!) - riffing on topics like Hollywood, the sun and the beach - are deliciously banal.

The music video itself features the three core members of the band (including one who sometimes calls himself "Millionaire Peng") dressed like crosses between college-aged hipsters and the kinds of down-on-their-luck guys who spend hours browsing second-hand store for the deals instead of the fashion, dancing like attention-starved tween girls and licking their synthesizers in front of the worst green-screen job imaginable, all the while being rained upon by an endless stream of superimposed 100 RMB Chairman Mao bills.

If that doesn't do it for you, stick around to the end for an extended session of the trio half-heartedly slapping each other in the face to the song's electro beat.

New Pants is a Chinese rock band from Beijing that formed in 1996.  Starting as a Ramones-esque power punk trio, over the years they have expanded and matured their sound into something modern and unique, at times hilarious, and always distinctly Chinese.  They have released six albums to date, and I first discovered them in 2007 when I was a student studying Chinese in Beijing.  My life was changed forever.

Indeed, at that time I felt the same way about New Pants that I assume most people now feel about PSY: They have a tremendous sense of style, even while mocking it; their music is humorous yet actually really, really good, and unlike boundary-shattering comedy musicians like Tenacious D, they are far removed from anything resembling a novelty act.

But most importantly, they are Asian men.

Despite cries from sincerity advocates like Public Radio International's Jesse Thorn and the late David Foster Wallace, Americans are still hopelessly addicted to irony.  Moreover, they love the ironic appreciation of cultural products while maintaining that there is nothing ironic about them.  The more absurd the better, and if you don't understand what the fuss is about, it's simply that they get it and you don't.

Real stars are thin and in shape.  PSY is overweight.  Real stars are usually white, sometimes black or hispanic.  PSY is Asian.  Real stars can sing, or at least dance.  PSY can apparently do neither exceptionally well.

Despite claims that Gangnam Style is the most liked Youtube video of all time due to its genius as a universally resonant piece of social satire, I would venture to guess that it's more because the Internet ambassadors of cool wanted to lay claim to it before anyone else did and  - like viral videos tend to do - it snowballed.

I mean, even PSY himself hasn't a clue as to what is going on.

If I knew what made a video go viral I would be a very rich man.  We all know that China is doing a lot of wrong in the soft power department, but it certainly isn't owed to a lack of local talent.

So why has New Pants not been a success?  Could it be that, as much as they may seem to be to the uninitiated, they are not jokes?  That the west is not ready for an Asian act that is more threatening - more respectable - than a paunchy, pompadour-sporting musical version of Joe Wong?  I can't imagine that New Pants' Peng Lei would be bothered to teach Britney Spears the jump kick from Bye Bye Disco.

In fact, the problem may be that the west isn't ready to fully embrace something even a step above a fat Asian dude floundering around in a sauna.


Check out SEX DRUGS INTERNET for a taste of New Pants' enormous, manic brilliance.

You Are My Superstar showcases their zany taste in fashion and dance moves.

Everybody, their bizarre sense of humor and music video style.

Dragon Tiger Panacea, a direct contradiction to Osnos's claim that Kung Fu is off-limits.

... and finally 野人也有爱, or Wild People Can Also Love, a satirical tribute to their own non-legacy.

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