PSY, the Korean pop sensation whose viral hit video, "Gangnam Style," has been viewed almost 800 million times on YouTube (that's the official video, never mind the countless other users' uploads and all the spoofs and tributes), closed out the American Music Awards on Nov. 18. In a savvy, surprising and ultimately, ironic, collaboration, the 35-year-old PSY (real name: Park Jae-sang) was joined for a mashup of his hit with MC Hammer's "2 Legit 2 Quit" (above) and brought the house down, with celebs and fans (Hammer too) mimicking his horsey-cowboy dance moves.
Within minutes, blowback flew out over Twitter. Most of the messages were gut reactions to the irony of a song sung mostly in Korean being featured on the "American" Music Awards. Here's one example: "Seriously psy is closing the show?? It's called the AMERICAN music awards not the Korean.." and "I'm pretty sure this is called the American Music Awards #gobacktoAsia." (OK, the "gobacktoAsia" hashtag is pretty offensive -- I've had that yelled at me in the past.)
The fact that the tweeters didn't catch the awesomeness of the irony and only expressed their xenophobia and ignorance was disappointing but not surprising.
Some of the tweets, though, were flatout racist, like "Why is chink PSY at the American music awards he doesn't make American music what is going on" and "are you kidding this chink is on the AMA's? #sad #keywordAMERICAN." You can see a sampling of offensive tweets at the Public Shaming Tumblr blog.
What's sad is how, when you check Twitter to see the profiles of some of these tweeters, they turn out to be young kids -- teens, by the look of them, and by the tweets about how chemistry is a hard class, or how a friend snagged Justin Bieber tickets. These are people who probably should, but don't, know better. Their parents may not have instilled an appreciation for equality. (I'm generous here; sure, the parents might just be racists themselves, and the kids learned their values from their families.) Or maybe they're just ignorant. Or maybe they really do hate Asians (they obviously think we're all "chinks") and other people of color.
These types of Twitter outbursts offend me and piss me off. But I'm starting to see a pattern. This show of ignorance flares up whenever there's a spark that lights the flames of bigotry. This time it was PSY having the utter gall to own the stage at the AMAs. Last year, it was an explosion of stupid comments about how the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan was somehow payback on the "Japs" for Pearl Harbor.
Just a few weeks ago it was when Barack Obama easily won a second term as president. We'll have to be on guard for lots of outbursts for the next couple of years on the Obama front, I fear. Floating Sheep, a group of geography brainiacs, posted a fascinating map after the election, "Mapping Racist Tweets in Response to President Obama's Re-election" that showed that most of the hate speech on Twitter originated in the South. It's too bad the region is living up to its historical stereotype. The Atlantic shared the map along with some of the nastier tweets, such as "OK we pick a worthless nigger over a full blooded american what the hell has our world come its called the white house for a reason."
Umm, sorry, it is NOT called the White House because only white people can live in it.
But all this incredibly awful racist chatter is ultimately in the minority. In each of these instances, the vast majority of more reasonable people rise up and snuff out the hatred. For all the idiotic comments about PSY, some have already been deleted by their creators, and some of the accounts have been shut down, probably because of all the backlash.
In the end, I've come to accept that whenever people feel their deep-rooted values (including those of prejudice and bigotry) are threatened, they lash out in the most primitive way they know, right from their prehistoric neanderthal brains. I don't expect that all of mankind will suddenly stop being tribal and accept each other as equals. I can't change every racist's mind. Hell, I may not change any racist's mind. I can only try to set an example myself of how I think people should treat each other. It's that now-cliche saying from Gandhi: "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."
In fact, I think that PSY's performance with MC Hammer is worth noting not just for the hate it sparked, but also for the change it represents in the world. When I saw Hammer, my immediate reaction was "Oh man, he's trying to make another comeback? Couldn't they pair PSY up with someone who's more current?"
Then I thought about it, and there's a huge significance to the duet. I don't know if the AMA's producers did it on purpose or it was a happy accident. But the performance was a stunning moment of cross-cultural collaboration, not just a clever mashup with baggy parachute pants for nostalgic value. Crystal Anderson of the High Yellow blog gets at some of the racial significance (and how black R&B and hip-hop have influenced Kpop) in her "Psy and Hammer" post.
But here's some historical context to consider:
Hammer's career was at its commercial peak with his fourth album, Too Legit To Quit, which was released in 1991. His biggest hits were the title track (spelled with "2″s) and "You Can't Touch This." He may have fallen from his high perch atop the charts within a few years, but on April 29, 1992, Hammer was very much a player in the country's social and pop culture consciousness.
That's the night that Los Angeles lit up with its own flames of hatred. The trial of four white police officers for the brutal March 1991 beating of Rodney King, a black man, ended in acquittals, and thousands took to the streets to riot in protest.
Over the next six days and nights, a racial subtext played out between the African-American and Korean communities in South Central L.A., which were already on tense terms because of a light sentence given a shop owner who shot a black teenager, and resentment over the fact that Koreans ran many of the businesses but didn't hire African-Americans. When the rioting began, Koreans armed themselves to protect their shops and violence broke out between the communities. When Rodney King made his emotional plea, "Can we all just get along?" he wasn't just talking whites and blacks. He also included Asians.
So now fast-forward two decades -- the media made a big to-do over the 20th anniversary of the King verdict and the L.A. riots in April 2012. To have PSY, a Korean superstar and MC Hammer, an iconic black star from 1992 (who helped fund Justin Lin's breakout indie film Better Luck Tomorrow), performing "Gangnam Style" and "2 Legit 2 Quit" on stage together to close out the American Music Awards, seems an ironic and appropriate -- even touching -- bookend for the year. It's a racial and cultural coda that hopefully signals that wounds have healed and we're in a -- ahem -- "post-racial" era.
Yeah, right. Tell that to the haters.
This is a cross-post from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View blog.