The Obligatory Gangnam Style Post

Dear Korean,

We've all heard it and we all love it, but what exactly is Gangnam Style and what makes it so popular in your opinion?


The Korean tried. He really tried to avoid the fad. He thought this was going to blow over in a few days, and everyone will feel a bit silly afterward. But no . . .

Gangnam Style just kept coming on -- 273 million views and counting, appearances on network televisions shows, continuous climb up the charts and numerous homages to the original. (The latest one: from the Ohio University marching band.) Questions about Gangnam Style just kept coming also, even though the Korean has been slower with blog updates.

So, FINE. Let's discuss Gangnam Style. First, what exactly is "Gangnam Style"? "Gangnam" literally means "south of the river." But generally, Gangnam refers to a specific area in Seoul located south of the Han River that bisects the city. The area generally encompasses the northern half of (confusing name alert) Gangnam-gu and Seocho-gu, covering neighborhoods like Apgujeong, Sinsa and (confusing name alert, again) Gangnam. It is an area with posh malls, expensive dining and swanky clubs. People who populate those areas are rich, stylish and beautiful, carrying all the appropriate status symbols like imported cars and fancy handbags. They are often celebrities or heirs of Korea's magnates.

The Korean was raised in Apgujeong, so he is the original Gangnam man. And it has been a little bit funny to see his old home described breathlessly as some place that "has no real equivalent in the United States. The closest approximation would be Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Beverly Hills, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Miami Beach all rolled into one[,]" according to the Wall Street Journal (quoting this clueless blogger.) Finding the U.S. equivalent of Gangnam is quite easy: it's West Hollywood / Beverly Hills. It has celebrities, style, money, and nice homes and good schools just behind those flashing lights.

(Aside:  This "no equivalent in U.S." trope is really overused, and in this instance, the comparison is clearly hyperbolic and incorrect. Gangnam is obviously not a Silicon Valley, since there is no huge concentration of tech companies in Gangnam. Nor is it Wall Street -- that would be Gwanghwamun / City Hall area, north of the river, where all the major banks have their headquarters. Gangnam is not Upper East Side either, since Gangnam is decidedly nouveau riche. The old money of the kind that occupies the Upper East Side of New York is found in Yeonhee-dong of Seoul, north of the river. The Miami Beach comparison is too dumb to address.)

So when PSY speaks of "Gangnam Style," he means to invoke the trendy, stylish image. But of course, what PSY ends up doing in the music video is a parody of such image. He is wearing a ridiculous suit and dances a ridiculous dance. He appears in decidedly un-Gangnam areas:  children's playground, on a paddle boat, riverside park, a bus with a disco ball, etc. A couple of times, PSY does encounter what might be fairly close to a Gangnam-type occasion -- a man driving a fancy car (a cameo appearance by the legendary comedian Yoo Jae-seok,) and a beautiful woman (cameo by Hyuna from the girl group 4Minute) flirting. But those moments quickly dissolve into another round of ridiculous dancing.

(Aside:  If you immediately understood the relevance of the bus with a disco ball, you have a black belt in Korean culture. The "party" bus is usually for older Korean men and women, who would like to dance away from the public view. To release their urges to shake it, they would charter these buses with total strangers and have a mobile dancing session. By the way, those old Korean folks dance about as well as your parents. It is probably the most un-hip mobile party in the world -- which fits perfectly with Gangnam Style's aesthetics.)

Having said that, what made Gangnam Style so popular?

(More after the jump)

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At bottom, Gangnam Style is popular because of the same reasons why any pop music is popular. The song is catchy, the music video is interesting and funny (and full of hot girls to boot,) and the dance is distinctive. (One recent example that replicates this pattern:  Teach Me How to Dougie by Cali Swag District.)

But of course, there is more to it, since plenty of Korean pop music that never sees the light of the day still satisfy those criteria, even as a lot of Korean pop musicians deliberately market themselves in the U.S. So what made Gangnam Style stand out? Broadly speaking, there are two reasons.

First, Korean pop music has been laying a solid groundwork for PSY to succeed. It is true that, thus far, efforts by Korea's pop stars to break into the U.S. market resulted in a flop. Top stars like Wonder Girls, Girls' Generation and 2NE1 never made a dent on America's public consciousness. Nevertheless, the groundwork that these groups laid remains important. Because Korean pop music at least got on the radar screen of the insider players of American media market, PSY's music was easily accepted by those insiders.

This is a crucial point that separates Korean pop music and pop music from other, non-Anglophonic countries. Through repeated contacts with American media, Korean pop music had a ready audience among American media insiders.

The Twitter network map that traces the connection between
the first appearance of Gangnam Style and T-Pain,
from a study commissioned by YG Entertainment, PSY's production company
The importance of this access cannot be emphasized enough. The first spark of the Gangnam Style conflagration in the U.S. was kindled by producer and rapper T-Pain, who shared PSY's music video on his Twitter. T-Pain's endorsement lent a certain level of legitimacy to Gangnam Style. Soon, other U.S.-based pop musicians and other trend-setters -- Katy Perry, Nelly Furtado -- began talking about the song. Then CNN picked up the story. And so began the hype cycle. Without the first, crucial step of T-Pain sharing PSY's video, there was no Gangnam Style phenomenon. And T-Pain bothered to look at PSY's video because K-pop has become a legitimate force around the world, and was worth his time to look.

Second, Gangnam Style is popular in America because Gangnam Style is familiar to Americans in multiple ways. The song's electro-pop tune fits right in with the current American music trend, in which LMFAO's Sexy and I Know It is one of the favorites. (Try listening to Gangnam Style right after Sexy and I Know It -- the similarities are enough to think that the same person composed both.) Because the tune of the song is so familiar, it matters less that most Americans have no idea what PSY is singing about.

(Aside:  But do not over-interpret this point and think that PSY was copying LMFAO. PSY has been around for 11 years, and he can be heard composing this self-satirical, electro-pop music pretty early on in his career. For example, check out PSY's 2002 song, Champion.)

Similarly, it is not enough to say that Gangnam Style is popular in the U.S. because Gangnam Style is hilarious; Gangnam Style is popular in the U.S. because it is hilarious in a way that is familiar to Americans. The code of humor embedded in the music video -- awkwardness punctuated by bouts of ridiculous non-sequitur (like the guy in a cowboy hat doing pelvic thrust, another cameo appearance by comedian Noh Hong-cheol) -- is very common among American comedy. Ultimately, it is the same type of humor latent in, say, Napoleon Dynamite -- an embarrassing train wreck in which the main character is somehow vindicated through sheer obliviousness and irrational self-confidence.

There is a dark side of this code of humor as well. In the current day American pop culture, it is ok to laugh at Asians doing strange things. (Think Ken Jeong's character in the Hangover series.) On a certain level, PSY -- a pudgy, funnily-dressed Korean man -- is a comfortable target to laugh at. This is not to say that people who enjoy Gangnam Style all have a sinister, racist motive. This is only to say that people's motives as they approach a certain phenomenon are complex and multitudinous, and not all of them are necessarily positive.

There are certain occasions in which such non-positive motives reveal themselves in a really ugly way. In the Creators' Project concert held in Seoul a few days ago, Korean rap legend Drunken Tiger took the stage. According to Tiger JK, leader of Drunken Tiger, the "white people" toward the front of the stage hollered their demands that Drunken Tiger do PSY's horse dance. This led to an angry tirade from Tiger JK: "Just cuz I don’t dance when i spit. Don’t mean I’m frontin. I salute my homie PSY success.But I don’t have to dance for you cuz I’m Asian." In the hands of ignorant people, Gangnam Style will become the new "ching chong."

A few leftover thoughts about Gangnam Style, and the attention surrounding it:

1.  While the Korean is quite happy that PSY's music is receiving international attention, he cannot believe the ridiculousness of the commentary surrounding this piece. In fact, reading the commentary regarding Gangnam Style was a good way of finding out who knows what he was talking about, and who is simply full of shit.

The most frequent type of ridiculousness has been over-analysis. People who otherwise knew little about Korea hung onto every little bit of Gangnam Style, and interpreted every aspect of it as if Gangnam Style were the Bible. The worst offender of this was The Atlantic article on Gangnam Style, which had this gem:
One of the first things Hong pointed to in explaining the video's subtext was, believe it or not, South Korea's sky-high credit card debt rate. In 2010, the average household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent). There are nearly five credit cards for every adult. South Koreans have been living on credit since the mid-1990s, first because their country's amazing growth made borrowing seem safe, and then in the late 1990s when the government encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian financial crisis. The emphasis on heavy spending, coupled with the country's truly astounding, two-generation growth from agrarian poverty to economic powerhouse, have engendered the country with an emphasis on hard work and on aspirationalism, as well as the materialism that can sometimes follow.
Gangnam, Hong said, is a symbol of that aspect of South Korean culture.
Wow, really? By this stupid logic, the subtext for Black Eyed Peas' Let's Get it Started is not about getting drunk, but the rise in teenage autism. People, Gangnam Style is not that profound. If you told any Korean that Gangnam Style was a subversive parody of materialism, s/he will laugh at your face. At the end of the day, it is a silly party song. It is not some type of magic prism that reveals the mystery of Korea. Get the fuck over yourselves.

2.  Another brand of over-analysis:  connecting Gangnam Style to some obscure Korean tradition that has very little bearing in modern Korea. This is from the Wall Street Journal article linked earlier:
PSY belongs to an established genre of entertainers that pop pundits there have dubbed “gwang-dae,” after a caste of performers traditionally attached to royal households. “Gwang-dae are more clown or jester-like,” says Kang. “They don’t have to be sexy idols to be popular. Their songs are either very humorous, or can sound serious, but with silly lyrics.” . . . The original gwang-dae were given a certain amount of license to critique the aristocracy, offering up satirical commentary on society through their dance, music and repartee.
This is a facepalm level of fail. Yes, there was such a thing as 광대 in Korea. It is literally the word for a "clown." And yes, several centuries ago, gwangdae did have a major place in Korean popular culture. If you were writing a scholarly article, tracing the lineage of Korea's musical humor, you might, might be able to connect the dots between gwangdae acts from the 17th century with PSY's Gangnam Style. And along the same logic, you will have to argue with the straight face that Family Guy, with its numerous comical music sketches, belongs in the same genus as Mozart's hilarious Marriage of Figaro.

Or maybe it makes more sense to focus on Korea's robust modern pop music history. Just a suggestion.

3.  It was also refreshing to see the tired old stereotypes about Korea that get trotted out in the commentary. (The Korean tends to miss them sometimes.) Again, from The Atlantic article:
None of this commentary is particularly overt, which is actually what could make "Gangnam Style" so subversive. Social commentary is just not really done in mainstream Korean pop music, Hong explained. "The most they'll do is poke fun at themselves a little bit. It's really been limited."
"Social commentary is just not really done in mainstream Korean pop music"?? Anyone with the most basic knowledge of Korea's pop music history knows this is not true. Off the top of his head, the Korean can name several dozen songs by indisputably mainstream, chart-topping K-pop artists that explicitly made social commentaries, often in a satirical manner. As a quick example, this is how a song from 2000 called 포조리 [Pojori], by DJ Doc, begins. (Note that "dirty bird" [짭새] is a Korean slang for police):

새가 날아든다 왠갖 짭새가 날아든다
Birds fly in, all kinds of dirty birds fly in
새중에 넌 씨방새~ 날지 못하는 새 짭새
Among the birds you are a fuckshit bird, a flightless dirty bird
새가 날아든다 짭새가 날아든다
Birds fly in, the dirty birds fly in
문제야 문제 우리나라 경제 좆같은 짭새와 꼰대가 문제
It's a problem, it's problem, the economy is a problem, the dickhead dirty birds and the assholes are the problem
새가 날아든다 짭새가 날아든다
Birds fly in, the dirty birds fly in
짭짭짭짭짭짭 짭새가 문제
D-d-d-d-d-dirty birds are the problem
So this song, in pretty explicit terms, criticizes Korean police. (And trust me when the Korean says -- the lyrics get worse.) Oh by the way, DJ Doc's album containing this song (which was the second headlining song) topped the sales chart for three weeks. But nooo -- let's quote the guy who clearly has no idea what he is talking about. We cannot possibly ruin the stereotype about how Koreans are these meek, subservient and humorless automatons, can we?

4.  While the Korean wishes PSY well, he cannot help but wonder if PSY can achieve a sustainable success. Although the Korean laid out several factors for PSY's success, he cannot tell just how much each factor is weighed. If PSY's musical merit is the greater factor, he will find sustained success. But if catchiness plus being an easy target of laughter are the greater factors, Gangnam Style could simply be another Macarena. Although Gangnam Style is undoubtedly a huge success story for Korean pop music in general, the Korean is still waiting for the true, genuine breakthrough of Korean pop music in the United States.

-EDIT 9/26/2012- The Korean fixed up some sentences here and there to make the post a bit cleaner. Also, this post about the term oppa might be helpful for those who are curious. Before Gangnam Style took off, that post was one of the first Google search results for "oppa."

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