“Gangnam Style” – Psy
I was speaking with my friend Max Bulger recently, and he explained that the recent K-Pop sensation “Gangnam Style” was a deep social commentary on the social structure of South Koreas capital, Seoul. I was blown away, and asked him to do a write up on the song. Here’s an abridged what he had to say, for the full version click here.
PSY’s “Gangnam Style” has officially arrived, won, and taken an international victory lap. Since being uploaded on July 15, the video has racked up nearly 172 million views, and countless response videos and songs have sprung up since. Even American popstars like T-Pain, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have given it a public nod.
K-pop is not a new phenomenon, dating back at least to the early 1990’s. Usually featuring club- or R&B-influenced dance music, with a heavy electronic influence, it attracts young, party-friendly listeners. The genre is a product of South Korea’s broader pop-culture complex, inheriting a hyper-consumerist combination of Japan and the USA’s rampant vanity.
Park Jaesang, stage name PSY, short for ‘psycho’ is the creator of “Gangnam Style,” the first K-Pop song to truly cross-over to the American market.
With a clear cultural background and staggering results, only one question remains as the dust of a billion people doing the Gangnam horse dance clears—what is actually up with “Gangnam Style”?
To understand “Gangnam Style,” you have to understand Gangnam. Gangnum-gu is a notoriously wealthy neighborhood in Seoul, rife with valet espresso shops and luxury car dealerships. In South Korea it is still strongly frowned upon to criticize or condemn the more fortunate. In other words: no pointing fingers at or laughing at the 1%. Which is exactly what “Gangnam Style” does. Re-watch the video with this concept in mind and the devices will be obvious; watch PSY parade through the streets of Gangnam, mercilessly mocking the attempts of the wealthy to buy love, elegance and acceptance. To Koreans, Jaesang just took a fat-tip sharpie and circled the words “socioeconomic inequality” in front of the whole country, and did it with a smirk and wink.
PSY, and his team, are great marketers. For viewers not interested in the social underpinnings, the piece is bursting with other distractions: song, dance, slapstick humor, non-sequitor, scantily-clad women, fancy cars, outlandish clothes, and even explosions. While the Korean cultural implications of “Gangnam Style” have gotten some American press coverage, the vast majority of consumers seem content to just Teach Me How To Crank Dat Gangnam Style.
The implications of this are complex. Do we file this under another case study of digital media and the internet enabling social equality abroad? Or is it an example of how the viral spread of content can easily force it to lose its meaning, and true value? Is this a triumph of information technology or a dangerous meme?