Psy Overtakes Jeremy Lin for Impact on Asian Image

Just months ago we thought Jeremy Lin was the ultimate Asian superstar.

Not only did the Harvard grad’s cinematic benches-to-boards, sofa-to-stardom story inspire Linsanity — making him the first Asian American to stretch the American Lexicon since the Japanese American 442nd contributed “Go for broke” with their World War II heroics — Lin showed that Asian men can be stars, not just sidekicks. After rocking more major magazine covers in 2012 than any other American athlete or bikini babe, Lin, 24, snagged a 3-year, $25.1-million contract to play point guard for a young Houston Rockets team, presumably assuring him a marquee role in the NBA.

Of course that was before James Harden unleashed Beardsanity. Lin lost his shooting touch while struggling to adapt himself to sharing the ball with a onetime Thunder sixth man emerging as one of the NBA’s top scorers. Lin’s status on the Rockets slid from lone star to second or even third scoring option. During a loss to the San Antonio Spurs in mid-December Lin scored 38 points to tie his personal best from Linsanity days, but that was only in Harden’s absence. With Harden in the picture, Lin is routinely pushed to the sidelines — and to second or third place in the box scores.

Nowadays media coverage for Rockets games often omits mention of Lin’s play. When Linsanity is mentioned, it’s used almost ironically to evoke the phenomenon that apears to have passed into a footnote in NBA history.

Even before the ink had dried on Lin’s Rockets contract, the world’s attention was hijacked by an obscure Korean rapper named Park Jae-sang, 34. Looking to end his two-year hiatus from the music scene, on July 15 Park posted a self-produced music video on YouTube under the name Psy, short for Psycho.

“Gangnam Style” had a strong beat, huge funky breaks and crazy visuals — dance moves and situations so jarring to accepted notions of style and good taste that they triggered involuntary laughter. The lyrics are almost entirely in Korean but the video made the song’s satiric thrust obvious to everyone. Within two weeks the video was the internet’s most viral.

Seven weeks after “Gangnam Style” was posted, Psy was the top trender in the social networking sphere. Admiring tweets came from all sides, including top pop producer Scooter Braun. By early September Psy was signed to Braun’s Schoolboy Records. Within days he was appearing on every major TV talk show from Ellen to Jimmy Kimmel to Conan O’Brien to Good Morning America.

Psy was the feature attraction at the European Music Awards and the American Music Awards, as well as in the Christmas in Washington charity special. For over two months he was one of the top two on the iTunes singles chart and the Billboard Hot 100. For seven week he was number one on the Billboard Social 50, reflecting “Gangnam Style’s” hyperbolic trajectory toward the billion-view mark and beyond.

Psy is a Korean national who makes his home in Seoul, but his popularity has made him a fixture in the US entertainment scene. He is even becoming a part of Americana, with holiday appearances on the Christmas in Washington special and the Dick Clark New Year’s Eve show.

Psy is introducing Americans to a different kind of Asian superstar. While Jeremy Lin has reinforced the stereotype of the kid who got good grades in school and worked hard to earn a shot at the big time — while dishing full credit to god — Psy has been shattering stereotypes. He’s the chubby badboy with dark shades and decadently pastel tuxes who dirty-danced with Madonna at Madison Square Garden. His image has even taken on an edgy new complexity — practically de rigueur for serious American artists — when he was exposed as having participated in a 2004 rap performance of a song featuring anti-American lyrics advocating the rape and killing of Americans.

The next year could be a big year for both Asian stars. Lin could emerge out of Harden’s shadow to rekindle Linsanity, possibly in another, more Asian-friendly market. Psy’s next single and upcoming album could cement his standing as the next big talent — not novelty — on the global pop music. Both are likely to factor big in the image of Asians in America, but as things stand, Psy looks to have the edge in the race from phenom to lasting superstardom.