by Dan Moore
Have you ever watched a K-Drama? I'm not suggesting you should, or anything, it's just that the more Korean Wave stuff you're familiar with, the easier it is to understand why you might find PSY's "Gangnam Style" a little less annoying at wedding receptions in 2018 than LMFAO's own novelty pop, now that Rockwell's more successful younger brother and their nephew have, at least for the moment, returned to their home planet.
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Anyway, I haven't watched a lot of K-Dramas (and Korean romance movies), but I've seen enough to understand at least some of the appeal. First appealing fact: They aren't in English. A lot of the other things that make mainstream Korean pop culture appealing to people who don't enjoy mainstream American pop culture flow from our inability to understand it. Bad acting isn't quite so bad; bad writing is obfuscated by bad subtitle translations; potentially distracting nuance is gone, and you're left with the broad particulars of a guy and a girl who will never get along but are maybe secretly in love.
Related, second appealing fact: K-Drama characters appear, at least, to be completely sincere in their attempts to be goofy, or heartbroken, or whatever. I can imagine LMFAO making a video about doing a horse-riding dance. Here's the crucial difference: They could never just do a ridiculous horse-riding dance. They'd always be winking at you through their ridiculous sunglasses while they did it.
For a group that wrote songs whose topics ran the gamut from having anonymous sex to getting ready to have anonymous sex, there was something weirdly inhibited about LMFAO, which I guess is part of their appeal if you found them appealing. They never fully committed to their characters; they always--knowingly, I think--left the possibility that they were just slumming it, half as a gag. Theirs was misogyny and stupidity and vapidity prepackaged for people who weren't able to ironize other peoples' misogyny and stupidity and vapidity by themselves--like Ke$ha they partially digested all the worst parts of our pop culture and then spit it into our mouths in a pastiche that was even sleazier for its determined knowingness. Don't worry! all the goofy clothes and the press clippings about their family and their day-trading insist. We don't really like this either!
It's not that you have to take a K-Drama any more seriously than you would Gossip Girl or one of those romantic comedies where the main character is self-aware about being in a romantic comedy; you just have the option of existing in the moment with Dal-rae as she learns that Ji-hwan has lost one of his legs in a car accident right as they were about to confess their love for each other. (Spoiler alert.)
That's the appealing thing about K-Dramas: They appear, at least from this distance, to be totally unmediated, like a studio system romance with more cell-phone-based plot twists. They aren't packaged with a built-in viewpoint--they're just bundles of all the tropes that appeal to hopeless-romantic types, as acted out by extraordinarily attractive Koreans, and you can take their cookie-cutter plots and endless goofiness however you'd like to.
A lot of this is an illusion built on our not knowing Korean, or Korean culture--all the social signaling in "Gangnam Style," which is apparently a satire, is flattened by how outside it we are. PSY is apparently something of a bad boy in South Korea's more buttoned-down press; we've missed out on tabloid scandals about marijuana and compulsory military service and ten years of albums and singles.
But that's okay, for our purposes; provided we don't learn Korean, provided we interact with its pop culture mostly at wedding receptions and when we want a tearjerker that is singleminded in its pursuit of tears, it'll keep working that way, and it'll keep being refreshing.
So for now, listening to PSY makes me feel less like a character in a flat-affect Bret Easton Ellis novel than listening to LMFAO. This is an odd turn of events--America, the home of Hollywood and the multi-camera sitcom and everything else self-styled intellectual college sophomores hate, is now a net importer of unironic escapism. (See also: Bollywood viewing parties, anime, One Direction.) I'm sure that will change eventually, but so far neither presidential candidate has responded to my lobbying re: a goofy-but-genuine-seeming-pop-culture tariff.
Confession: In small doses I found the party-rocking schtick weirdly appealing. Over the summer I found myself, somehow, on a Party Boat with a few friends in the middle of a lake in upstate New York, and our Party Playlist was leavened with just enough LMFAO to make the whole surreal experience sincerely fun. For an hour or two, at least, I understood completely how pleasant it is for everyone to be self-evidently in on the joke.
It just gets exhausting, after a while, having to wink about liking to party before you can like to party; it's nice, for a change, to watch PSY using ridiculousness as an end in itself instead of a crutch.