By now, “Gangnam Style” is widely regarded as a modern-day “Macarena”. It’s got all the hallmarks of the ’90s phenom — the attendant silly dance, the indecipherable lyrics in a foreign language, the element of goofiness. And while I’m sure I’ll be horsey trotting around the dance floor between “The Electric Slide” and “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” at my wedding (date, time, and groom TBD), I’m not so willing to brush off “Gangnam Style” as just another silly fluke of an import from somewhere far away.
For many years, the money machines of the Korean entertainment industry have been working tirelessly to engineer something called the hallyu, or Korean Wave. It’s a lot like the corporate efforts that went on Stateside in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, which propagated bands like Backstreet Boys, artists like Britney Spears and shows like Making the Band. People as young as 12 are plucked from malls, talent shows, cattle-call auditions and the like to be groomed for stardom in bands engineered by major recording companies. Trainees live together, learn to dance, and how to talk to the media, eventually landing (if they’re lucky) in a group like 2NE1 or the current heavy-hitter Girls Generation.
The girls in the bands tend to be exceptionally beautiful — sometimes naturally, often with the help of plastic surgery — and the boys gorgeously androgynous. Their careers are managed by industry savants a la music mogul Clive Davis. This has largely been an extremely successful business model, capturing the Japanese market and positioning itself to eventually do the same in China. In recent years, media giants such as S.M. Entertainment, the engine behind Girls Generation and many other Korean idols, has been eyeing the U.S. market for a similar take-over. And here’s why “Gangnam Style” is so interesting…
PSY, an average-looking, 34-year-old man, doesn’t fit the mold of the K-pop that media executives in Korea have been working so hard to export. Not by a long shot. Young, beautiful, clean-cut and embodying Korea’s traditional conservative values, the K-pop idols being groomed for cross-over success in the States have little in common with PSY. The rapper, who has been busted for pot in the ROK, has broken through with a tongue-in-cheek hit subverting much of the glitz and consumerism that bands like Girls Generation (who have “more than forty endorsement deals in Asia, from cell phones to roast chicken,” according to the New Yorker’s John Seabrook) embody.
I always dreaded K-pop’s inevitable arrival in my homeland, seeing it as basically a filtering of my least favorite elements of American pop culture through a different lens — cute, submissive girls singing about romantic relationships with all the depth of a 13-year-old’s diary entry. But with PSY’s surprising arrival on the charts, I’m starting to think it might not be so bad after all.
For one thing, “Gangnam Style” introduces a side of Korean culture I always thought was lacking — humor with a sarcastic edge, a step away from the Ace Ventura-esque slapstick that seemed to permeate the media during the year I lived there. To be sure, satire and parody occur in Korean media from time to time, and it certainly would be harder for the layperson to identify than slapstick comedy. But satire in Korea doesn’t share the kind of status it enjoys in the Britain and the States, where satirists like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are major players in the cultural landscape. This is one of the reasons the success of “Gangnam Style” was so surprising and exciting.
While the video telegraphs PSY’s satire pretty directly, it can be hard to catch in the lyrics. One touchstone is the line about coffee in the first verse. Boutique coffee shops such as Starbucks, and Korean chains like Angel-in-Us, are comically prolific in big Korean cities. In my old neighborhood, Busan’s wealthy Jangsan, there were three Starbucks within a few minutes’ walk from my house, one of them directly across the street from an Angel-in-Us and next door to an independent coffee bar. A cursory drive through a neighborhood like this would give the casual observer the sense that Koreans have a coffee-based economy. The drinks are very pricey and play a role as a sort of status symbol. When PSY sings “A classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee,” he’s poking fun at the way moneyed people flash their wealth. That’s not something you see any other big-name Korean pop artists doing. They opt instead for songs about falling in love and feeling shy about it.
By American standards, the winking tease of the coffee culture must seem quite mild. And the rest of the lyrics look even less racy: “I’m a guy who is as warm as you during the day […] a guy whose heart bursts when the night comes.” But I can’t help reading into the rest of the lyrics a similar kind of jab at the culture of businessmen in Korea, who are quite serious and diligent at work but can be seen stumbling down the middle of the streets, completely drunk, at night.
At work-related after-hours functions in Korea, it’s bad form to stop drinking before the boss does, so the soju often flows all night. While I was living there, there was a lot of fuss in the media about a now-defunct blog called Black Out Korea. It featured photos of foreigners posing with Koreans, almost always in a suit and tie, passed out in bus stops, planters – you name it. But the outrage wasn’t over the fact that there was such an issue with drinking that you could barely leave the house after hours without spotting a wasted businessman. Rather, Koreans were furious at having it called to attention. When I read those lyrics, I see PSY subtly lampooning that culture of irresponsibility among the wealthy and the delirious insistence that it’s acceptable, even something to aspire to.
Finally, there’s that conspicuous inclusion of the word oppa, which has become a Korean version of the pervy way we sometimes use “daddy” in English. I’ve written about it before in more detail, but here’s the short version: it pops up a lot in songs by artists who are fashioned to look like sexy babies and make heavy use of lyrics like “I’m just saying stupid things again.” In “Gangnam Style”, it acts as sort of a touchstone for the infantilized, doe-eyed sexuality of many women in Korean media. PSY calling himself oppa is a clear parody of this trend.
“PSY hits all the symbols of Gangnam opulence, but each turns out to be something much more modest, as if suggesting that Gangnam-style wealth is not as fabulous as it might seem. We think he’s at a beach in the opening shot, but it turns out to be a sandy playground. He visits a sauna not with big-shot businessmen but with mobsters, [blogger Jae] Kim points out, and dances not in a nightclub but on a bus of middle-aged tourists. He meets his love interest in the subway. Kim thinks that PSY’s strut though a parking garage, two models at his side as trash and snow fly at them, is meant as a nod to the common rap-video trope of the star walking down a red carpet covered in confetti. “I think he’s pointing out the ridiculousness of the materialism,” [Adrian] Hong, [a Korean-American consultant] said.”
Surprising, too, is the fact that the first big Korean hit Stateside isn’t sung in English. With a smattering of members who were born and raised here, and their handlers in Korea drilling them in Japanese, Chinese and English, I was sure the eventual arrival of the hallyu would be heralded by an English-language collabo between K-pop divas and the likes of Nicki Minaj. And mark my words, those are still coming. But “Gangnam Style” seems to suggest not only that the Korean entertainment market is more diverse and compelling than I had previously assumed; it also shows American audiences to be receptive to another culture in a way I hadn’t imagined they could be.
Aside from the occasional Spanish-language hit from the likes of Shakira or Ricky Martin, who introduced themselves to American audiences first in English songs, the pop market has shut out almost anything that’s not in the native tongue. According to The New Yorker, an Asian hasn’t had a hit on the U.S. charts since 1963. Apparently having spent the last month or so under a cultural rock, I was shocked to hear “Gangnam Style” on a big Atlanta radio station just last weekend. Could this really be happening in America? In the South? Further investigation led me to Elders React to “Gangnam Style”, where you can watch Poppys and MeeMaws saying things such as, “This isn’t what we would stereotype Asians to be like,” and “Music should be international. I guess it is.”
Even after it’s reached near-ubiquity, I still find “Gangnam Style” refreshing and uplifting, a little glimmer of joy in a world that’s becoming increasingly globalized and, as a result, homogenized. The musical style and video concept may not be groundbreaking. But PSY’s presence on the world’s stage has both deepened international audiences’ understanding of Korea’s culture (which even I’ll admit to having thought of as pretty one-dimensional) and revealed American audiences to be a little more open, and more willing to put aside jingoism and discomfort with the unfamiliar in the name of fun, than I thought possible.
Whether or not the hallyu ever really breaks on American shores, we’ll have our fair share of vapid pop music by artists who are more good-looking than they are talented. And even for interested American parties, it may be hard to understand what a deliciously cheeky thing PSY has pulled off without the context of being familiar with a lot more Korean media. But no matter what the implications for the future of K-pop in America, or for our greater understanding of a country on the other side of the world, “Gangnam Style” is a phenomenon worth celebrating. I look forward to galloping to it at weddings and bar mitzvahs for years to come.