ZILLY TALKZ: PSY Craze and My Blog

Why do I blog?  There are some good reasons why I do it but the most important reason is that I want the world to get more accurate, in-depth information about (South) Korea, my motherland.

While studying in the US, years ago, I was really shocked to find almost nothing out there explaining Korea in English when there were a great collection of books about Japan or China written in English. I was really disappointed and even briefly angry at the Korean government and politicians that have been negligent in their duty. For, as my blog reader Judith Mopalia incisively put it, "There is probably not another country in the world so consistently misinterpreted, misunderstood and misrepresented as Korea - especially by people who purport to know about Korea."

Ever since, I've always wanted to talk about rarely-known aspects of Korean culture, society, and history and thanks to modern conveniences of the Internet and worldwide web, I'm blogging about Korea now. Of course, it'll be the icing on the cake if my blog becomes famous or I can make money in the long run from blogging. However, I wouldn't sacrifice the cake for the icing and it hurts when Korea is misportrayed with my blog misquoted. And I feel offended when my blog is used without citation or my consent. (It's beginning to tire me, to be honest.)

Though, I'll have to give this guy an A+ for perfectly "digesting" my interpretation of Psy's song/music video as if it was his own creation in the first place: 'GANGNAM STYLE' HAS SHARP SOCIAL RIFF, 220M VIEWS.  Of course, with no citation.  Bravo!  So, this morning, I told my son to be anything but a journalist. Seriously, what else can I do?

BTW, six days ago, he emailed to ask me a load of questions and I stayed up late to complete the answers, which I want to share with my readers here.

Q: Why is the song popular among Koreans? Is it popular among Koreans?
Do Koreans see the nuanced satire here or is it just the dance/rhythm? Is too much made of the satire/social commentary angle? (PSY has said he was just trying to write a funny song and has been surprised by the questions about satire....)

I think it’s basically just the dance/rhythm. And that was why I wanted to write about the Gangnam Style song/video.  I thought people inside & outside Korea might take it just as another funny music video, which is actually deeper than they might think.  Many of Psy's lyrics are satirical about Korean society and the moment I watched it, I just instantly knew it’s a satire partly as a Korean and partly as a long-time fan of Psy since his debut.

When the song/video has become a global phenom and the worldwide listeners are going wild about it, even having no idea what the lyrics literally mean, though, Psy might have not wanted to strike a sour note in the party of his as well as theirs. Or my blog might have gone too far in one direction of the satire/social commentary. But don’t you think that’s a special privilege that reviewers or critics of songs, movies, or books have?

Why is GS popular among overseas viewers?

funny and refreshing

What does the global popularity of GS mean?

Korean fans now jokingly say, “PSY's newly acclaimed global fame is “forcibly” given to him.” Unlike some other k-pop idol stars that have been knocking on the US market, he’s risen global stardom without any promotion. I think the global popularity of GS can translate to "Try first to make it big in your neighborhoods, then the rest MAY follow in this socially networked world." I also believe his success was boosted by his timely contract with the YG Entertainment (YGE) that boasts a huge fan base in Asia and Europe.  (He signed to YGE in late 2010.)  The loyal fans who religiously listen to the songs and watch the music videos produced by YGE must have been the initial spreaders of Psy’s viral video, I guess.

Is Psy making social commentary mainstream thing?

Well… yes and no.  During Kim Dae-jung government (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun government (2003-2008) when South Korean democracy (and economy) was stabilized and blossomed, there were plenty of artists/musicians voicing their own opinions on almost every aspect of South Korean society.  But it’s been dying off or dying out as the recently released Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index 2011-12 shows: South Korea is ranked 44th in press freedom, falling below Botswana, South Africa and Ghana. (http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2011-2012,1043.html)

Is it the first K pop export with social commentary and satire?

If you’re talking about exports to the US, yes; if it’s about Asia or South America, no: Yoon Mi-rae (aka Tasha or T), a female rapper/singer and her husband and rapper Tiger JK are already very popular in Asia and South America.

Psy style
What is it about his style that’s so popular?

Maybe a weird combination of cheesy yet classy (as he put it when describing “the mindset” of his song, “Dress Classy, Dance Cheesy”), strange yet familiar, peculiar yet universal, comic yet serious…..? Anyways, his style grows on you quite easily/fast and is quite addictive.

What explains the “Gangnam Style?” Overnight jump in real estate prices?
Something to do with the educations, the popularity of foreign brands, the tall buildings, the oldest South Korean apartments?

People have aspired to the idea it symbolizes – wealth, status, and power. In fact, the area boasts the elite educations, high-end foreign cars and fashionable clothes, upscale shops selling world-class labels, and high-rise apartment complexes like the Samsung Tower Palace.  As I wrote on my blog, though, the idea of Gangnam style is not actually tangible, just like the Emperor's New Clothes; in other words, GS means VANITY.

What is the song about?
Does the music video lampoon South Korea's ambivalence toward Gangnam?


Are South Koreans ambivalent toward Gangnam? On the one hand, they want to live there. They want to be part of the country’s most elite community, they want to marry someone whose parents live in Gangnam because of the wealth, the status of success that South Koreans want to attain.


Is it a place where once you get accepted, your children and grandchildren will be assured top educations and continued wealth from real estate prices? Something about South Koreans' desire for stability and security linked to Gangnam, because real estate will always be valuable and children will inherit?  


Do South Koreans respect people living in Gangnam or is there a feeling that they’re not self-made, that their money came from skyrocketing real estate prices, from luck or inheritances, instead of hard work.

The latter.

What about Gangnam as the heart of South Korea's plastic surgery boom? Is there bitterness that because you’ve got a lot of money you can transform yourself into a beauty? People envy the plastic beauty but also mock and poke fun at it?

Until lately, many of the people outside the Gangnam area really wanted to be one of them. But more than anything else, they are frustrated and furious about the extreme socioeconomic polarization between Gangbuk and Gangnam.

Since the Asian financial crisis which caused innumerable M & A, downsizing, cutbacks, and also large scale layoffs in South Korea. As the working and middle class got laid off, downsized, or outsourced, they had no choice but to sell their properties at giveaway prices. And it was the upper strata of society that purchased those properties as they had stable and abundant cash flows even in the crisis. As the middle class started turning into poor, their children has been deprived of high-quality education, which has led to much less opportunities to go to prestigious universities, which has led to much less opportunities to get better jobs in the society where highly specialized, high-end white-collar workers earn more money, respect, and power. In short, the IMF crisis created an endless vicious circle of poverty in Korean society. And as the 2011 Korea National Statistical Office survey shows that 58.7 percent of respondents say they don’t think they will ever move up to the upper class, Gangnam in the 21st century epitomizes the upper strata of society, i.e., off limits to the rest of the country.

The Gangnam people have become so ugly in terms of public responsibility, let alone lacking a sense of noblesse oblige.  They even gang up on the rest of the world motivated purely by economic self-interest even though it's contrary to the public interest.  That’s how they have become the scorn of the rest of the world now.

What about Gangnam as the heart of South Korea's private education? South Korea's obssession with education and prestigious schools have generated a massive private education industry center of which is Gangnam.

The Gangnam School District 8 is not working miracles anymore as the specialized high schools located nationwide have been lately catapulted to top performing schools countrywide.

What does global, accidental popularity of Psy or kim ki-duk, both of which buck the success-formula that South Koreans have long held, mean to South koreans?
Do Kim Ki-duk and Psy make South Koreans rethink their place in the world? Inspire them to embrace and accept people for how they are, rather than trying to fit oneself into the proven success formula?
Kim and Psy don't fit into South Korea's success formula -- South Koreans believe being a graduate of top university, being fluent in English, looking good (meaning slim, stylish, flawless skin, looking young and well groomed), being a trend setter and quickly accepting the top foreign trend/brands as a formula for success. They also believe that these elements will make them appear successful to fellow South Koreans. Hence so many Gangnam women carrying luxury bags....
Kim didn't receive formal education beyond elementary school, was a manual laborer since 15. He never got formal training in film and he had no connection in universities to make it in the film or any industry ... yet he’s a massive success for his quirky, non-conformist movies.
Psy – chubby, not classically or plastically handsome, old (for KPop), drug run in and dodged military service. In a way both of them are failures who no South Korean parents would want their kids to imitate, and yet they are the “face of Korea” in their respective fields – music and movies....

I’ll begin with Psy:  While Psy’s global fame is accidental, his popularity among South Korean people is far from it, I think.  When he first appeared in the Korean music scene, he immediately captured the hearts of viewers not only with his uniquely fun and exhilarating music and performance/dance but with comic and satirical lyrics; in other words, his music captured the spirit of the times. Born and raised in an extraordinarily rich family (of course in Gangnam) and now married to a woman from an equally wealthy family, he’s a walking example of the phrase, “Appearances can be deceiving.” And he’s really smart as my friend said, “Some may think Psy looks like a pig, but he really is a fat fox.”   He's been an iconic figure in Korean music industry, especially as the “King of Performance”; he literally brings the house down with his signature, hilarious performances.  Of course, he had some scandals but I don’t think he was considered a failure, maybe by some, but absolutely not by his fans.  And a majority of Korean people seem to have already forgiven him as he's honestly making a mockery of his scandals.  (As the old saying goes, no one spits on a smiling face.)  Even though he’s got this confidence unique to wealthy kids, he doesn’t look like one of them.  In his case, his chubby, not classically or plastically handsome appearance is his strength.  In short, ironically enough, both his wealthy background and his down-to-earth demeanor have made him a household name both among the haves and among the have-nots.

Kim Ki-duk:  On the contrary, Kim is the most misinterpreted, the most misunderstood, the most underappreciated, the most underrated, and probably the most hated director in Korea.  South Korean smart-ass critics and media have always disparaged his achievements, mainly because they're more educated than him. And the undereducated/ordinary Koreans or the extreme feminists just have felt disgusted with him as they consider his movies/him to be offensive, disturbing, and disrespectful of women.  Even now, a number of critics (and the media) are dissing him and his movie, Pieta.  So I agree, in a way, he is considered a failure in the South Korean society.

Other Reads: Wait! PSY's Gangnam Style Video Gets Propaganda Treatment?
                      My Blog Cited in the Atlantic Article