NOP3 | Are you Gangnam Style?

By Jamie Kim | New Organizing Project blogger

Forget “swag” or “yolo”, it’s all about “Gangnam Style”. You probably heard all about it this past month. “Gangnam Style”,  a Korean electronic pop song written and sung by South Korean rapper Psy has gone viral and it’s the latest video being liked, shared, and tweeted all over the web.  Its fame has been covered by ABC news, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and even by a French News Agency. Even celebrities like Chelsea Handler, T-Pain, Justin Beiber, Nelly Furtado, and Josh Groban have joined in on the Psy craze.  As of August 7th, Kevin Allocca of YouTube wrote that the four minute Korean music video has been viewed 65 million times and gained a global viewership with some of the most social media sharings coming not only from South Korea but in other countries like the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Singapore and Sweden.

But what is about this song that has got a global audience humming? Do they actually know what the song is alluding to? Is there an understanding of what “Gangnam” culture actually is?  What is it about this song that just sticks?

From the surface level, “Gangnam style” simply appears to be an outright visually hilarious song with eccentric dance moves accompanied by catchy tunes but it’s much more complex than that. Most global audiences other than the Korean immigrants probably have a limited way of sensing the subtle cultural satire of “Gangnam Style”, without the language fluency or understanding of the Gangnam culture. If Gangnam Style didn’t come with a music video, no one probably would have known or cared about who Psy was, a similar analogy to if Taylor Swift’s songs weren’t accompanied by fairytale-like story-line videos that construct the girl next door image, the level of popularity she has earned among tween audiences is open to discussion.

Evan Ramstad of Wall Street Journal suggested that it has been able to surpass the success of other popular Korean music videos because it is not as “serious.” The fact that “Gangnam Styles” doesn’t include the usual Korean tween “idol” with skinny jeans and guy liner with a perpetual serious frown on his face, mourning unrequited eternal love immediately sets Psy apart from his peers. Rather than mainstream idol groups like Girl’s Generation and Big Bang that are well known in the U.S today, Psy is refreshingly an individual performer with a bit more age and experience, doing his own thing. Psy is also not someone who is considered to be the traditional heartthrob nor does he try to be one. The unpolished production and image of his music video immediately gives off the vibe that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and doesn’t care what anybody thinks; this is a universal image that everyone can relate to and is displayed in the music video for “Gangnam Style.” It’s self-deprecating yet the fact that he embraces his identity with confidence makes the audience drawn to him.

But the music video is also not as lighthearted as judged by many at first glance.  Fascinated by the Gangnam phenomenon, many journalists and essayists jumped in to give an analytical rundown of the song to western audiences.

Gangnam is a posh metropolitan area in South Korea, known for its superior education, designer fashion, and as the recognized residence of the wealthy. In Korean interpretation, Psy makes a comical contradiction, as he sings about how elite females in Gangnam are his ideal type of women, although he is not “chic” as “Gangnam style” is believed to be. He is sadly not who he thinks he is as many Koreans put on a show to exhibit what they think they can afford [but really can’t] for the sake of their reputation. The theme of “perception is not reality” consistently continues through the music video as Psy is sitting by the playground rather than a luxury beach resort, and swimming in a public bathhouse rather than by the pool.

Native Koreans who can nod their heads in agreement with Psy’s sarcasm also write frankly of Gangnam’s superficial high school-like culture that everyone has unconsciously given into: the mentality that you have to wear and possess certain materialistic items to feel valued and the universal dreams of Koreans to one day be a resident of Gangnam. An in-depth analysis by Jea Kim of My dear Korea blog writes about a personal realization of her own relation to the Gangnam district and offers an insightful criticism that “as Gangnam earned the enviable reputation ‘overnight’ as the best place to live not because it offers rich heritage, sophistication, or cultural legacy, people don’t really know exactly what they are longing for even in the midst of longing for the ‘Gangnam style.’” The song is a mockery of the elite class of Gangnam and the sad reality of wealth defining people’s identity.

The fact that the “Gangnam Song” is being recognized for its comical visuals rather than its true ironic undertone is quite tragic, but then again value of the art is in the eye of the beholder.  Maybe it’s the whole Glee era of what is Uncool is Cool, but Psy definitely got his 15 minutes of fame and whether it’s here to stay is uncertain but I’ll enjoy the ride for now.

For more critical analysis into Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” check out Matt Fisher of The Atlantic’s essay: Gangnam Style Dissected