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.