Hitting Pause on ‘Gangnam Style’

The YouTube video is a viral sensation, everybody’s doing the dance, and rapper PSY is raising the profile of Koreans in pop culture. So why does the success of “Gangnam Style” make me feel so uncomfortable?

POP CULTURE SENSATION: Korean pop star PSY performs his hit ‘Gangnam Style’ on NBC’s ‘Today Show’ at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. The video has surpassed 200 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Nancy Kaszerman/Newscom)

Perhaps you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about “Gangnam Style,” the latest YouTube video-gone-viral with more than 220 million views to date. If you are one of the few remaining inhabitants of the planet who haven’t seen the video, then let me bring you up to speed:

• The rap/song features South Korean pop star Park Jae-Sang, who goes by the name “Psy” (short for “Psycho”), accompanied by a cast of South Korean celebrities who most of us will not recognize, all dancing to a driving, ear-catching techno beat.

• Unless you are fluent in Korean, you can expect to understand none of the words in the video except “sexy lady” (and of course, “Gangnam style”. By the way, “Gangnam” is pronounced Gahng-nahm — not “gang” rhyming with “bang” as I continue to hear many American media types pronounce it.) You can find a translation of the full song all over the Internet; here is one example.

• “Gangnam” refers to the wealthiest, most opulent district in Seoul, South Korea; it’s an area that is only 15 square miles but holds nearly as much of the nation’s GDP as New York state (that’s state, not city) does in the U.S. You can look at this infographic for some more details.)

• No horses were harmed in the making of the video, but they do inspire the dance move that is taking the world by storm.

So is “Gangnam Style” worth watching? I have seen it a few times now, and I admit the tune is catchy and the video visually arresting (albeit occasionally bizarre; Psy breaks down the song scene-by-scene here). I’ve now also seen countless clips of Psy’s appearances on the gamut of American television shows, from Ellen to SNL to the MTV Video Music Awards, each time with Psy doing his signature horse trotting from the song, each time with an exuberant audience laughing and loving every moment.

It’s fun.

Yet with each time I see the spectacle of Psy, I feel like my soul dies just a little bit.

Surely I must be overreacting! As Psy himself says, this is a historic moment for Koreans, who have never had the chance to see one of their own experience this level of pop-culture fame and acceptance here in the U.S. Shouldn’t I, a Korean-American, be thrilled for his success and full of ethnic pride for his popularity? Or at the very least, can’t I just enjoy the song alongside his hundreds of millions of fans and try to master his moves like Britney Spears?

The easy thing to do would be to watch the video, have a few laughs, share it like everyone else is doing, then move on with my life. What’s the harm? But I think about an exhortation that Professor Rosalie de Rosset gave to Moody Bible Institute students recently, and it stops me short:

“Having a philosophy of leisure means that, as a Christian, you have thought theologically and biblically about what you do with the time you call your own, with what you choose as entertainment, what you do when you relax or you may fall into the moral problem of drift, of a ‘group think’ mentality which merely follows a leaderless crowd, falling into triviality but even more the great emptiness that can haunt us as we drift along by chance or by circumstance.”

(From Dr. de Rosset’s chapel talk entitled “Mindful or Mindless:  A Theology of Leisure and Technology,” September 12, 2012, Moody Bible Institute.)

I think that it’s the descent into “group think” that has bothered me most about the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon. Most people can only discern that Psy is singing about “sexy ladies” and managing to get a whole slew of them to dance like horses. Few have looked into the song enough to understand that it is actually poking fun at the lifestyle and excesses of über-upscale Gangnam.

I imagine my ambivalence about the video’s popularity might be akin to what I’ve heard some of my African American friends say about certain black rappers or shows on BET — that they are unintentionally propagating old stereotypes in the manner of a modern-day minstrel show. The sad irony is that the more popular “Gangnam Style” has become, the more its actual substance has gotten lost amidst the spectacle. What began as a song that contained an interesting social commentary has become a “minstrel show” for the majority masses.

Moreover, when music becomes popularized, it takes on a cultish quality: people become converted, they evangelize about the songs (made easy these days with all of our “liking” and “sharing” and “tweeting” of media), and the artist is turned into an idol. In his book Listen to This, music critic Alex Ross writes that “audiences have routinely adopted music as a sort of secular religion. … Musicians find themselves, in a strange way, both enshrined and enslaved.”

As I watch Psy move from talk show to talk show, repeating his now familiar shtick of “dress classy, dance cheesy,” as much as there is a part of me that is happy for him and his success (and I admit I feel some of that for him), there is an equal or larger part of me that feels sorry for him. He cannot go anywhere right now without doing the same show, over and over, because that is what the masses desire and require.

A MESSAGE BEHIND THE MADNESS: Those who understand Korean know that ‘Gangnam Style’ is actually poking fun at the lifestyle and excesses of an ultra-wealthy and exclusive district of Seoul, South Korea. But most viewers of the video are likely unaware of the song’s satirical intent.

The masses don’t care if the song has some deeper intent; they don’t want to know what all the foreign-sounding words even mean. They’re content with the novelty of it all (and with the horse dance). Likewise, the media doesn’t care about the opportunity the song gives to open a window — damning though it may be — into South Korean culture. They just use Psy to boost their ratings and then move on. Psy might be having the time of his life, but I wonder if there is any part of him that wishes he could just be free of all the madness.

So the popularity of “Gangnam Style” isn’t just a human-interest story of a K-pop (“Korean-pop”) star unexpectedly making it big. It also gives us clues about the world and culture in which we live. And we can either uncritically laugh alongside Psy’s legion of countless new fans, mimicking him with exuberance, or we can take a moment to ask ourselves if there is any downside to spending a few scant minutes of our lives watching the video, sharing it with our friends, and perpetuating the mass hysteria.

In that same chapel talk to the Moody students, Dr. de Rosset says, “What we do with our leisure can have more effect on us than what we do purposefully. What we do purely for pleasure may have the greatest and most insidious effect on us.” A YouTube video-gone-viral of a Korean pop star may just be a YouTube video-gone-viral of a Korean pop star. Or perhaps it is we who are infected, with an ailment that clouds our ability to even discern anymore what is worth watching and sharing, or what is not even worth watching at all.

About the author, Helen Lee

Helen Lee is the author of The Missional Mom, co-founder of Redbud Writers Guild, and mother of three young sons who somehow know all about dancing “Gangnam Style” despite never having seen the video. You can visit her website or find her on Twitter @HelenLeeAuthor.
  1. I’ve wondering the same thing. I saw the video before it went viral and didn’t realize the deeper intent behind the song until I read an article about it afterwards (my Korean isn’t so great :D). I actually respected PSY and the song much more after reading the article, considering how he’s brining the art of satire into Korean culture. But I keep wondering if he’s going to be the next Macarena where the world will get sick of the song in a month and the whole phenomenon will be over. I watched as the credits rolled for SNL to see if anyone would even interact with him (when the cast hug each other) and saw that he kind of stood there awkwardly with only a few folks coming up to him). As for PSY himself, I hope the intelligence he seems to have will help keep his head above it all and that he’ll remember he’s an artist with a culture challenging message and not simply a famous caricature. Thanks Helen!

  2. Isn’t it always a problem with satire that it can be mistaken for the thing that it is trying to comment about?

    Having conversations about the real meaning (which I have seen on a number of blogs) is a good way to combat misuse. However, this post seems to suggest (and maybe I am misreading) that it might have been better for the video to have not been made so that it would not have been misunderstood. If that is the case then I disagree. Of course we do not want to be mis-understood. But satire and parody main tools are their subtlety. Without them much humor and much historic change would never have occurred (think Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, Dr Strangelove, Huckleberry Finn, etc.)

  3. Actually, Adam, I’m not saying that; I am frustrated that with each passing share and each additional media appearance, the masses move further away from understanding the actual intent of the video at all, and Psy’s popularity is used merely to entertain instead of to challenge and inform. I am also frustrated that we as Christians sometimes so uncritically consume media when it’s “popular” without thinking twice about it. I have no problem with Psy making this video. I have trouble with how the public is interacting with it. Now, if more media outlets chose not just to have Psy do his dance, but to understand more about what he was trying to communicate, that would be one thing. But except for rare occasions, that hasn’t been happening. And it’s not even that the video is being misunderstood. It’s that very few people actually seem to be trying to understand it at all. They’re just being entertained by it–which is only part of what the video has to offer. Thanks for helping me to clarify what I was trying to say!

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  5. Oh my God.. this is the worst and worthless article I have ever read on Gangnam Style. Let fun thing stay fun. If you cannot swallow even GN style thing, you are just way too serious person. About the intent, the Atlantic article or commentaries on this song’s satire are exaggerated. No one in Korea actually take this song as satire song. Psy himself has repeatedly said that this is just for fun. I really feel that people like you have talents to make this happy world dark with no reason.

    • If PSY has really come out to say that he never intended any deeper meaning behind the song (which is not what I had heard from others who have seen him in interviews), then my respect for the song certainly decreases. Good music – even if it’s pop music – is about being fun while making a serious social commentary on the society and culture (e.g. From Run DMC, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Pink and many others). This is the greatness, power and beauty of music. I fully agree with Helen that we shouldn’t misunderstand the purpose of the song – that it actually ISN’T another “Macarena” but rather something with meaning with a catchy riff.

      I’m also reminded of Dave Matthew’s “Crash” which everyone thinks is a love song because they’re not understanding the lyrics are about a stalker watching his prey.

  6. DD, I think you need to tell me how you REALLY feel. =)

    Seriously though; I get where you’re coming from. The thing is–and I think perhaps my post didn’t really make this clear enough–my beef is less about the song itself. It’s more about how the song is being received, and what that does to the message–intended or not—along the way. It’s about a culture that both idolizes and yet reduces the artist to a mere shadow of who he really is. It’s about our tendency to consume culture mindlessly and to do what we want in our leisure time without thinking deeply or theologically about our choices. And if we believe that mindless entertainment is what brings true happiness into the world, then it’s a dark place indeed. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Helen, I think it’s natural to feel some discomfort anytime something like this goes global. Indeed, I had seen the song 4 or 5 times before I had any idea about the subtle social commentary. I think it’s hard to feel/wonder if people are receiving something well.

    I felt kind of similarly about the Antoine Dodson / Bed Intruder song. It’s like on the one hand, it’s catchy and interesting, no question. But also, I felt a little bit like our (African-Americans’) dirty laundry was being aired for other people’s entertainment.

    I think you’re entitled to have mixed feelings about the situation, because of your perspective and life experiences.

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  10. That is a striking quote from Rosalie de Rosset! Could you post a link to video, audio or text of that message? Thank you.

    • Scott–if you email me, I can send you a copy of the transcript. Go to my website and use the “Contact” form to send me your email, and I will get back to you soon!

  11. Scott, unfortunately Moody doesn’t post their chapel talks online as of yet. I obtained the quote by asking her for a transcript of her talk, which she graciously provided. I’ll ask her what her preference is for requests of the full transcript, and I’ll get back to you.

  12. Helen, Thanks for sharing this thoughtful reflection. The uncritical consumption of whatever earworm (yuck!) “song of summer” is out there can easily push us further away from where we want to be. I feel it more & more these days — when my short-term memory is clogged with junk (“Call Me Maybe” anyone?), there is less room for the things that really matter.

    On a related note, I was absolutely cringing when SNL started their “Gangnam Style” sketch. Their only portrayals of Asians or Asian Americans border on yellowface most of the time, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop while watching. Even their Jeremy Lin sketch from last season played for cheap laughs while trying to simultaneously maintain that “but we’re actually critiquing society” vibe.

  13. I would be interested in your take on Jelani Greenridge’s article on Gangnam Style (which linked me to yours). http://www.urbanfaith.com/2012/09/the-genius-of-gangnam-style.html/

    i think it brings out a couple of issues/thoughts: don’t ALL popular things go for the lowest common denominator? Not saying your concerns aren’t valid…but trying to compare it with other comparable things like the Macarena, or the various slides.

    In the early 80’s there were a couple of German songs that were popular for a while, then faded away. Do you think Gangnam style might be like that?

    p.s. haven’t seen the SNL skit…so they had a non-Asian do the skit? Very few can do the cross cultural spoof well (Darell Hammond does a GREAT Jesse Jackson sr.). But they couldn’t grab Bobby Lee for a few minutes? Especially if it was a Digital Short? He’s even on their network!

    • We have different approaches to the topic, with Jelani applying lessons learned from GS to ministry. I don’t entirely disagree with his points (especially his exhortation to churches NOT to do any GS parodies!) But neither do I agree with all of his points, as I don’t think they are universal principles. For example, in many cases the authenticity of one’s experience at church has nothing to do with how slick the production values are. The idea that “great songs unify people” and helps people feel they are in a “secret club” if they know them is actually problematic when you are trying to reach the unchurched. The last way they would want to feel, I imagine, is that they are not a part of the club because they don’t know all the rituals and elements of the service. But all this having been said, I appreciate a different perspective, and while I wouldn’t use the word “Genius” to describe GS, I can appreciate the creative energy behind it.

  14. Al Jazeera English recently tried to take a deeper look into the social commentary of Gangnam Style. The Stream, which is Al Jazeera’s social media news show has an episode on Gangnam Style, the “Korean wave” through K-pop, and socio-economic inequalities in South Korea. You can check out the show here: http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/k-pop-diplomacy-0022328

  15. Most people just love the catchy beat & hilarious dancing. The meaning, to the masses, is meaningless. I doubt Psy is going to be a cult phenomenon…he’ll probably continue to be bigger in Korea and a one-hit wonder here. Nothing wrong with some fun. I think we sometimes take ourselves and our society way too seriously. Psy makes me laugh and there’s way too little of that in the world right now. He’d make me laugh regardless of his ethnicity. Let it go.

  16. Interesting backstory. I actually wish you had explained the lyrics more – a bit ironic that Americans don’t know what the song’s about when it sounds like it would resonate with our “99%” even more if we knew the content. This is the first time I’ve seen the video and I didn’t actually find it hilarious, at least not past the first few seconds – it looks like a great pop video to a great pop song, which isn’t as easy to achieve as many think. I like the over-the-top joy of this song and video! If the lyrics have substance – even better.

  17. I think this commentary from Mother Jones also hits at some of my discomfort about the whole hysteria. Notice that I did not necessarily say that I am down on the song or video itself, which as I mentioned I find humorous; it’s what all the hysteria and how Psy has been received means, what it communicates about us and about our culture, that has bothered me. Anyway, here is the MJ piece: http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2012/09/gangnam-style-asian-masculinity%20

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  19. Why are you taking down to us? The social commentary is VERY obvious, and I think most people get it. There is no need to try and educate us.

  20. Honestly, we need to wisely examine everything these days because of the sure presence of ingenious schemes and hidden agendas. Especially, things that come from outside of our country. We must be very vigilant and wisely selective on what we allow in our hearts, in our families, our homes,in Christ’s church, in our communities and in our country.

    If we are not careful and choose ignorance for that sake of entertainment. We could very well be supporting rivalries and other evils that cause division other citizens in those countries are fighting like we do here to prevent. We have to consider this reality, or smart-phones won’t be the only thing we will be known for importing and exporting.

  21. I would like to re-cap and add one final point for this blog. If we are not careful and foolishly choose ignorance for the sake of entertainment. We could very well be supporting rivalries and other evils that cause divisions, rather they be in our country or that particular movement being sourced from an outside country like the song, “gangnam-style”.

    We all can now agree the term “gangnam-style” does have a meaning. Now that we know it, for those who are convicted to, our responsibility is now to educate the few within the few who care.

    As for those you who don’t care don’t be troubled, yet don’t be complaining about the problems in the world around you either. I’m speaking to those of you who do care and are learning to care about what’s in your soup (lol). Be wise and test the value of the things considered good enough for you and your family.

    Remember, something may not mean anything to you, but it does mean the world to somebody. We don’t know what issues the South Koreans are facing, nor the ones that are sure to be arising in the near future.

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