Loud, obnoxious and quite literally explosive, PSY’s international hit song and music video, “Gangnam Style,” featured the Korean pop star running around South Korea, driving luxury cars, blowing up pedestrians and wreaking havoc. An overnight sensation, PSY’s music video became the first video to top 1 billion views on YouTube and earned him priceless mainstream media attention. Despite the the video’s catchy tune and signature catch phrase (“Oppa Gangnam Style”) unintentionally made the international hit the first venture into K-pop and similar Asian music styles for many Americans.
According to Brian Hu, artistic director of the Pacific Arts Movement, a San Diego-based media arts organization focused on Asian and Asian-American entertainment, the rapid spread of Asian pop culture to America started as early as the 1960s.
“After 1964, with the generation of folks from Asia being able to immigrate to the U.S. more freely, there tended to be more interaction between the United States and Asia,” Hu said. “As that generation grew up and as that generation had kids, they tend to be a little more mobile and culturally flexible, so they became the mediators for a lot of pop culture from Asia coming to the United States.”
While PSY is largely known for his carefree energy, Asian musicians and bands are generally bound by contracts, which leave artists with little control of their pay and work hours. In 2009, Korean boy band Dong Bang Shin Ki filed a lawsuit against its record label, seeking release from their 13-year contract that gave them little to no profits from tours and record sales. Ultimately, the courts ruled in the band’s favor, but the disbanding of the group shed a harsh light on the pressures that Asian musicians face before their debuts.
But, those who are able to bear the trials of the large media corporation’s training regimens are now able to access an increasingly global audience. Since 2011, Asian culture has continued to pervade the American mainstream, with Asian music groups like BTS performing at the American Music Awards and making appearances on “The Ellen Show” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden.”
Apart from Eastern Asia, countries in South Asia have also breached the American market through film and television. The Bollywood film industry is also the largest in the world, with 1,602 films produced in 2012 alone while the U.S. produced only 476 films. In the same year, Hollywood sold 1.36 billion tickets compared to Bollywood’s 2.6 billion, nearly double of Hollywood’s, according to Forbes.
According to Forbes, California is also the state with the most Indo-American film screenings. Forbes also estimated that in any given week of May 2017, there were around 118 Indian film screenings in California alone.
“You see all of these Indian actresses coming to American cinema and movies,” Tavisha Thapar (12) said. “I think it feels my group of people is being spoken to. I think, my generation, especially the generation of kids who are born from immigrants … we try to connect to the culture of our families more and, by doing that, we put in more effort to connect with our cultures. So we bring that awareness, and we spread that to our friends who are not Asian, or to people, who are second- or third-generation immigrants.”
San Diego State University Media Studies Professor Bey-Ling Sha said that trying to classify “Asian media” as homogeneous is “inaccurate.”
“The diversity of Asian culture is never fully addressed,” Sha said. “Asia is a very huge continent with diversity of cultures, so one definite issue in the United States is the perception of Asia being this single culture, when really that’s not accurate.”
With the international spread of Asian media, Asian entertainment labels and networks have also taken steps to cater to their new audiences. In 2011, English integration was limited to random English lyrics and phrases (like PSY’s “You know what I’m sayin?”). But now, bands, like the boy band Seventeen, feature American members who conduct many of the international interviews and perform English verses in their songs. Asian countries like Korea and China have also adapted American television programs, like “The Voice,” even featuring artists like Jessie J as contestants.
“Something I noticed is that nowadays they have a Korean title and they have a separate English title for the same song,” Yerin You (12) said. “Most group names are in English and the songs also have a lot of English in them.”
But Sha said that the reason for the success of Asian entertainment in the U.S. may be the familiarity of the original Asian languages.
“I think Asian media in the U.S. is different from traditional, mainstream media in the U.S. perhaps primarily in the diversity of languages in which Asian media are offered,” Sha said. “There are newspapers in Chinese, newspapers in Japanese, and Vietnamese TV stations. So I think that Asian media has an effect on the U.S. because of its method of reaching audiences by using the original languages that Asians living in the U.S. are familiar with.”
TPHS Chinese teacher Fang Wang said that a country’s economic success may also influence the spread of a country’s culture.
Although only 11.19 percent of San Diego is Asian or Pacific Islander, according to the San Diego Health & Human Services Unit, Asian media has established its presence in the region, with frequent Asian film screenings in San Diego as well as radio stations specifically dedicated to Asian music. You said that she has had little trouble finding a community of individuals who share her interests in Asian entertainment at TPHS, which is 22.6 percent Asian or Pacific Islander (20.4 percent Asian and 2.2 percent Pacific Islander).
“After coming to America, I just kept listening to Korean music,” You said. “I’m proud because when I first came here Korean music wasn’t that big, and it’s cool to see that a lot of people are interested in Korean culture all of a sudden.”
Sara Shoushtari (‘17), who now hosts a radio show at Boston University, said that growing up in San Diego “impact[ed] her awareness of Asian media.”
“I think that really impacts the presence of Asian media and takes it out from being in the fringes and into more mainstream culture, for the simple reason that there is a large population consuming that media,” Shoushtari said.
But, despite growing up in San Diego, Rachel Lee (‘17), a participant in the 2017 Pacific Arts Movement San Diego Asian Film Festival, still said that she feels some disconnect to Asian culture as an Asian-American.
“At first glance, I am obviously Asian, but the American part of me is very much there,” Lee said. “I get American jokes, but not always Korean ones and therefore can’t appreciate Korean shows or jokes the same way my parents or friends do. The way I mentally process and do certain things are more ‘American.’”
Thapar agrees that it is often difficult to find a community interested in Asian media at TPHS.
“The closest I can get to finding a community would be at school, but especially for Indians, there are a lot of differences between Indians, too,” Thapar said “So when I find an Indian community, a lot of times, they’re from different parts of India so it’s weird and hard to relate. Also, outside of school, there’s not much, so it makes thing harder there.”
Even though PSY exposed many outside Asia to Asian media and culture, Asian-Americans largely remain a minority in American media.
“Western media are very stereotyped when it comes to Asians,” Lee said. “We’re usually labeled as smart, uptight and kind of quirky, which isn’t bad and isn’t necessarily completely false, but when Western media, especially Hollywood, exploits this and makes it a stereotype based on culture, it’s unfair.”
Today, Asian stereotypes act as barriers for many Asians in the entertainment industry, where roles are often confined to the narrow pool set by those stereotypes, according to Hu. Although PSY’s video shattered many of these misconceptions by showing Asians as playful and creative, Hu still believes that the popularity of Asian pop culture, like K-pop, may not necessarily translate into significant inroads for Asians in Western media.
“The excitement for K-pop in the United States is not really translated to something more than a famous Korean star in the sixth role in a Hollywood film, which, to me, isn’t making much of a significant impact,” Hu said. “And then when things like ‘Gangnam Style’ happen it feels like a one-off. … I’ve been around long enough to see that every few years Asia becomes the flavor of the moment, and it’s cyclical.”
According to a study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, only 5.1 percent of speaking roles across film and television in 2014 were played by Asians or Asian-Americans. Even when Asians are given screen time, 87 percent of the actors are on the air for less than half of the episode and 68 percent of broadcast television programs only feature one Asian main role, according to a 2017 study conducted by Christina B. Chin, Meera E. Deo, et. al.
“There are kind of stereotypes that you see in all industries, stereotypes of Asian people not being creative or they’re just number pushers,” Hu said. “They know how to do the work, but not necessarily think outside the box and in a creative industry like music, film or television that’s not cutting it.”
Thapar also said that Asian stereotypes in media affect high schoolers who may feel pressured to shape their goals around standards set by entertainment tropes.
“It puts a little bit of pressure because it kind of perpetuates the stereotype that all Asian kids are high-achieving and go to Harvard or Yale or something,” Thapar said. “Then, when you have kids for whom academics is not their strongest suit or who don’t play musical instruments, because of the pervasiveness of media stereotypes, you feel like you failed people in a way when, really, you haven’t.”
While Hu and Thapar believe that the media may play a role in maintaining harmful stereotypes, You said she has “never really found a correlation between the stereotypes and the Westernization of media.”
Wang also said that she doesn’t believe that Western stereotypes hinder Asian-Americans looking to enter the entertainment industry and believes that it is important for Asian-American actors to “change certain aspects of their performances and art to cater to more Western audiences.”
“I do not think Asian stereotypes hinder the spread of Asian media,” Wang said. “Now the Asian actors and actresses are playing important roles in the Western movies, too. If Asian media stars change certain aspects of their performances and art, they can reach out and spread their own views and culture to other western nations … It is not completely resolved yet but has been making progress over time.”
Despite the existing stereotypes, several Asian-American content creators have made waves with their own programs and industries, that specifically target American audiences. In 2015, the pilot for “Fresh Off the Boat,” a loosely biographical TV show about chef and internet personality Eddie Huang’s upbringing, aired. Featuring a primarily Asian cast, the show was one of the first to depict the daily lives of an Asian family adapting to American culture; it is also the first sitcom to air on an American primetime network since Margaret Cho’s “All American Girl” in 1994.
“Hollywood has been moving toward a solution but it’s gradual,” Lee said. “For example, ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is a show with Asians but with multi-faceted characters ,not just an Asian math kid … There’s a start in that American media are starting to recognize Asian media, like Marvel unofficially making Chinese and Korean superheroes and ABC remaking Korean dramas in American adaptations.”
While Hu believes that shows featuring primarily Asian narratives prove that those stories can be successful, he has yet to see those shows “change the media landscape.”
“Often in conversations about Asians in entertainment in the mainstream, they’ll point to ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ like its existence proves that [success] is possible,” Hu said. “So really it’s just kind of on that surface level and say ‘Hey, this is possible, it can succeed, it can be popular.’ But it’s not like anybody on ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ has now made major deals in Hollywood.”
For the billions who viewed “Gangnam Style” on YouTube, PSY was just that summer’s laughingstock. But, possibly unbeknownst to many, it was also their first introduction to Asian pop culture. While PSY’s song may not have resolved the stereotypes, popular culture from all regions of Asia have undeniably continued to influence Western entertainment, slowly pushing the needle of American media along with it.