On my uncle becoming a pop star

adapted from the original cc licensed photo shared by flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer
adapted from the original cc licensed photo shared by flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer

[So. 1 billion hits, eh? Here’s my obligatory, belated, and uncomfortably personal Gangnam Styles ramble. If you’re looking for objective media criticism, you might want to press the back button.]

A family with cultural capital? Didn’t have it. Stability in the home? Nope. Extra curricular activities? Only if shoving quarters in arcade games counts. A lot of freedom and time on my hands? One rare thing I had in spades. That’s why, growing up, media was the world to me.

I learned everything from TV, newspapers, and magazines. I thought Bill Cosby was the coolest dad. The Keaton family hugs blew me away. I read every magazine I could get my hands on from cover to cover. Muchmusic was my life’s blood. I wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

The only thing media couldn’t do for me was help me make sense of being in the skin of diaspora. In fact, it exacerbated my insecurity and disorientation. I wanted to be a white kid with flowing, dirty blond locks, not a brownish boy whose house smelled of garlic. When I went over to my friend Seth’s house and had Kraft Dinner with a squirt of ketchup on the side, I thought it was the height of culture. I always remember that evening because it symbolizes the hegemony I was immersed in.

You can imagine what someone like myself thinks about Psy’s Gangnam Style. I always picture having some warped dream where I end up speaking to my 12-year-old self to tell him:

When you are a middle aged bloke with a family and a minivan (pause to laugh hysterically) there will be a dude that looks like your uncle who dances in a silly fashion and raps in Korean. Yes, you heard right: Korean. He will take the world by storm.

Incredulous would not cover it.

Of course, there was no internet. What’s more, I think most would agree that the Gangnam phenomenon does not occur in the media landscape of my childhood. MTV could not have acted as a successful agent for Psy’s little 1-2 step. And even if they had, I wonder how much of its success would be based mostly on irony and implicit racism. No. It could only occur virally. It’s the lack of contrivance that makes it all the more special to me.

This is by no means an original or hugely revelatory statement, but I really feel as though we are experiencing a watershed moment for the Asian immigrant experience. You could perhaps argue that my feelings about Psy, in fact, serve to support the marginalization of the other. You might even say that the seeking out of global, external fame is exactly what we hope to avoid in self-realisation and empowerment. But, since an academic, cultural deconstruction rarely ends up on the side of mainstream euphoria, I just want to let my FIFA World Cup lizard brain tell you how I really feel.

I’m proud of the little guy, and I’m even more exalted by the fact that I (and especially my children) live in a world where the kids at school think it’s kinda cool to have slanty eyes.



  1. Royan, I love this post of yours! What a great personal connection. I can’t help but think about what my teaching partner and I did this year with GANGNAM STYLE. Our students love the song, so we found articles about it, and students explored the deeper meaning behind the song and behind what it meant for Psy to create it. The students learned a lot about communism and consumerism and even the value of hard work. When we presented OUR VERY GANGNAM STYLE HOLIDAY DANCE at the holiday assembly, they couldn’t have been happier and neither could the audience. Everyone has at least a little bit of a connection with Psy. Thanks for sharing yours.


    1. That’s so great that you turned it Ito such a meaningful media literacy study. It sounds to me like your learning curve for middle school ain’t so steep. You sound like you’ve been doing it for ages.

  2. Royan, thanks so much for this. I hadn’t made that kind of connection, though I can relate, even as a middle-class white kid, to the feeling of “which of these things is not like the other” .My high school was so WASP, it stung, and while being the W, and actively the P, I was very much not the AS, and my house smelled way too much of garlic, too. Great to get your perspective. Wow – you, as ever, just opened up a whole new hallway to run in. 🙂

    1. A whole new hallway, eh? First time I’ve hear that metaphor:) Also, the “W and the P but not the AS”? Holy smokes, you are so awesome, Lisa! Thanks for your awesome response as usual. Love ya.

      1. The thing is that “hanging out” with you, and Aviva, and Colin, and all the other rowdies in my PLN is like finding a brand new hallway… it’s like, oooh, there’s a new doorway I hadn’t noticed, what’s going on in there? It just seemed like the right metaphor for how new ideas open up my thought process. 🙂 Hope you’re having a lovely holiday with your family, you lucky guy (and I like that you get that, too, ’cause I’m lucky, too)

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