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What Gangnam Style success says about our connected world

By Andrew Lam   (Shanghai Daily)

08:12, October 16, 2012

Illustration by Zhou Tao(Shanghai Daily)

Anthropologists and linguists no doubt are having a field day trying to chronicle and dissect how, in the early autumn of 2012 "Gangnam Style" became an American idiomatic expression.

It stands for something along the lines of a brash, flamboyant way of doing things, clownishness, or an act of in-your-face spoofing that is both original, catchy and entertaining.

A Wikipedia page hastily set up showcases "Gangnam Style," as the most watched YouTube video of the year. The video has garnered 415 million hits since July and counting.

And the genius behind the dance that mimics riding an invisible horse - Jae-Son Park, erstwhile Psy (short for Psycho), a rapper whose career galloped into global superstardom with the distinction of topping the iTune chart in the US, the UK, and Australia and 28 other countries. Psy's video is also the most "liked" on Youtube as well as the most-watched video in Korean entertainment history.

History of crossover

But something beyond Korean history has clearly occurred with the global sanctification of Psy. It's the history of crossover itself, the phenomenon that has traditionally been treacherous and cruel, with so many talented entertainers from the Far East, or elsewhere at the margins of the Commonwealth, falling off the tightrope on the way to global stardom.

To cross over, as far as the world of arts and entertainment is concerned, is to go from the margin to the center, and to go from one set of culture to the next, trying to succeed in the latter. But, as a rule, it demands the betrayal of the original, and it requires reinvention: something of a bane to poetry, and nearly impossible for those who are entrenched in their own language, cultural sensibilities and references.

Take the case of Hong Kong actors Chow Yun Fat and Jacky Chan, and the South Korean singer BiRain as primary examples. BiRain, with his extraordinary dancing skills and his teenage heartthrob status, is known all over Asia as its own Michael Jackson. But Rain met with drought in North America where he starred in two movies that flopped, and his bid for global stardom was quickly ended.

Chow Yun Fat, voted by the LA Times as "the coolest actor" in the world in the mid-90s, also failed in Hollywood, in part because that very Hong Kong coolness turned lukewarm in Hollywood movies, and the hard-boiled image that made him famous in the East came off a stilted in the West. Bombing at the box office with his action movies, Chow ended up playing a stereotypical, hideous character in "Pirates of Caribbean: At World's End" (2007) and his role was deemed so offensive that it was cut from the version shown in China.

Jacky Chan, the most successful of them all, is worthy of note for his repeated attempts over three decades as an action star in Hollywood, and when he finally made it big he was, alas, already steeped in middle age.

Then came Psy, whose crossover moment seems to suggest a major shift in the history of the entertainment world itself. For one thing, it turns the old rules upside down: that crossing over requires giving up the original way of doing things, that the odds are stacked against those who try, and that it takes years of toiling and perseverance, even for the super sexy, cool and talented. Or, at the very least, you have to leave your home country to do so.

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