The Genius of ‘Gangnam Style’

What can Christian artists learn from the overnight viral hit? Look deeper than the goofy guest appearances and fan spoofs, and there’s plenty.

If you’ve never seen the smash viral hit video “Gangnam Style,” and you missed the recent TV appearances by Korean pop star PSY, let me describe it for you.

Take the silliness of Monty Python, the materialist accoutrements (and shiny suits) from P. Diddy, and the outlandish dance moves of MC Hammer, filter it through the Korean pop oeuvre, then multiply exponentially through internet memes… you know what, I can’t do it.

Just stop and watch it already.

It’s amazing.

(DISCLAIMER — it’s pretty tame overall, but still somewhat uncouth. The chorus says, “hey sexy lady!” and features shots of Korean female yoga-clad derriere. And there’s a random dude with a cowboy hat doing pelvic thrusts in an elevator. It’s a little insane.)

VIRAL SENSATION: South Korean pop star PSY has set off a worldwide craze with the music, dance, and humor of his “Gangnam Style” video, which has received more than 230 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, PSY explains the meaning of the song, and came off like a music veteran should – calm, self-assured, and articulate. But there’s no way he could’ve known how far it would go. More than 230 million YouTube views later, the song’s signature phrase, “Oppan Gangnam Style,” has joined the likes of “ayyy Macarena” and “u can’t touch this” as iconic lyrics to dance crazes that people find inexplicably irresistible. (Even SNL couldn’t resist.)

Naturally, it’s already attracted plenty of imitation. And since there are evangelical Christians who love to imitate (seriously, 50 Shades of Grace?), let this post be a public service announcement:

To all the church creative teams out there considering doing a parody of “Gangnam Style,” please don’t. Without a sizable Korean presence in your production, it could very easily come off as racially insensitive, corny, or just in generally poor taste (the Deadly Viper controversy comes to mind).

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it.

So here are five lessons about creative ministry we can learn from the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon:

1. Top-shelf entertainment is inherently cross-cultural. No longer is something limited in scope to boundaries of nationality, race, or even language. As a matter of fact, the best films and literature freely borrow and interpret from a variety of styles and cultures. Music is no different. Just as Americans have embraced the Japanese word and concept of “karaoke,” so too have plenty of Koreans adopted mannerisms from American pop culture, including hip-hop. And there are plenty of really good Asian emcees, including several who are Christ followers, like Jin (formerly of Ruff Ryders), and Korean-born Brooklynite HeeSun Lee.

This truth is pretty self-evident, however many creative Christians fall on either extreme of cultural myopia (only being interested in your own culture) or cultural appropriation (taking elements of the culture in an ignorant or disrespectful manner). Believers wanting their work to engage with their broader community should take this to heart. We can’t run away from other cultures, and we can’t be irresponsible with our cultural engagement.

2. Today’s pop culture is dominated by visuals. “Gangnam Style” is a perfect example of this. Without the video, the song, catchy as it is, would not be the juggernaut that it is. This is why, as an artist or a band, you can’t just have a certain sound, you’ve also got to have a certain look to go with it. This is also one of the reasons why church creative teams are beginning to invest more time and energy into set design, because the ambiance makes a difference.

While I’m on this topic … 

3. Production values matter. I can’t say this enough. Many YouTube videos by Christians have clever ideas and funny concepts, but they’re marred by poor lighting and bad editing. A large part of the reason why “Gangnam Style” is popular is because it looks fantastic. PSY and his crew went to a lot of effort with the various outfits, locales, etc.

Speaking of which …

4. Audiences appreciate commitment. What sets this video apart from the millions of others like it is that it’s really funny. Improv coaches believe one of the keys to comedy is commitment. PSY didn’t just do a few silly things and call it a day. He went all out. Rapping in a tuxedo while confetti gets in his mouth. Or in a public bath (complete with uncomfortable elderly onlooker). PSY is not necessarily the most attractive, physically fit guy out there, but he’s likable in this video because of the lengths he’s willing to go to deliver his message. And because of that, many people received it.

Which brings me to …

5. Great songs unify people.  I was reminded by this awhile back when Michael Jackson passed away. One of the downsides of this era we live in, with the proliferation of DIY pop stars and a million different TV channels, is that audiences are so heavily segmented that there are very few things that a LOT of people enjoy together. Thus, viral videos like “Gangnam Style” are filling the void left by top 40 radio and TV shows like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and, if you want to back even further, The Ed Sullivan Show.  “Gangnam Style” isn’t necessarily great music per se, but so much of the fun is that so many people love it. When my phone rings out “Gangnam Style” while I’m on the bus, I get knowing nods and grins. It’s like being in a secret club.

And that sense of belonging is, unfortunately, lost in some evangelical circles. There are direct economic incentives for worship leaders to write, record and sing their own music. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I think we all need to remember the power that music has to unify. Few things are more healing than being in an unfamiliar church environment and hearing a familiar song.

So let these principles occupy your mental space as you try to deal with having “Gangnam Style” stuck in your head, and enjoy this latest viral video hit.

Just make sure, if you have kids, that you use a little discretion. You don’t want to have to explain why your 4-year-old loves saying, “heyyyyy, sexy lady.”

About the author, Jelani Greenidge

Jelani Greenidge is an UrbanFaith columnist based in Portland, Oregon. A writer and musician, he blogs at JelaniGreenidge.com.
  1. Jelani, I appreciate your ability to pull out the goodness from this viral hit. We certainly have to be careful about how this affects the church when it’s so popular.

  2. And you talked about this brilliantly! Great way to analyze secular culture and help Christians THINK about what they do.

    And as the parent of a 7 year old & almost 2 year old girl, both of whom like to imitate and sing and dance…you have EXCELLENT words of wisdom and sensistivity.

    Just as a side note…Korean culture has lots to offer. In Chicago, there was a fan group that followed Korean dramas, both in modern setting and historical. But interestingly, there weren’t any Korean-Americans who were a part of it (just the guy who did subtitles for a few). Emperor Wang Guhn felt like a retelling of David and Saul.

    GREAT JOB!

  3. Pingback: New Pop Music Video » Blog Archive » ‘Gangnam Style’ shatters Guinness record for most ‘liked’ video in YouTube history – Today.com (blog)

  4. Pingback: Pop Music Video Site » Blog Archive » ‘Gangnam Style’ shatters Guinness record for most ‘liked’ video in YouTube history – Today.com (blog)

  5. Pingback: What Can Christian Artists Learn About ‘Gangnam Style’ | Praise 102.7

  6. Pingback: Just for Fun | March of Morn

  7. Pingback: Friday Fun Pt I | March of Morn

  8. Brilliant article, a Question was asked by one of the guys at our Bible study on this same topic, and I didn’t know what to answer, I was thinking maybe Psy was a Christian, but after reading your article, I see where he was going with the question. Now I have a much better understanding. Keep it up.