A Closer Look At “Gangnam Style”

by Zainab Akande on October 7, 2012

South Korean rapper Psy has gone viral and beyond with the worldwide recognition of his song and video, “Gangnam Style.”

Released July 15, “Gangam Style” has broken the Guinness World Record for most liked video on Youtube and made a lasting name for itself within the realm of American pop culture from parodies, (even by the North Korean government), to Saturday Night Live, to teaching Britney Spears how to dance the dance on The Ellen Degeneres show.

Psy, real name Park Jae-sang, is 34 and was born in the same district he makes fun of—Gangnam in Seoul.  He attended both Boston University and the Berklee School of Music. He is married with twin girls. He released “Gangnam Style” under the South Korean label YG Entertainment, home to other big-name artists such as Big Bang and Se7en.

The rapper has met a degree of fame other South Korean music artists who want to break into the American market, such as the Wonder Girls, 2NE1, and BoA have not seen.

Most sources attribute the sensation to the fact that “Gangnam Style” is hilarious to watch and even catchier to listen despite the initial language barrier.

“The world is currently in thrall to a fat Korean Psycho who is spouting anti-capitalist messages and blowing things up,” wrote Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian, and she continued, “Essentially, it is just an over-the-top video where a fat man does a comical dance and sings repetitive lyrics that don’t make sense to most of us.”

Is the humor of “Gangnam Style” harmless or does it actually reinforce negative perceptions and stereotypes of Asian men? It is difficult to pinpoint in the case of Psy whose musical hit makes purposely playful mockery of the upscale Gangnam lifestyle.

“When people ask why Psy’s video is so popular, this is one of the major issues that goes unanswered.” Crystal S. Anderson, associate professor at Elon University and contributing writer on Korean culture said. “I think more people are laughing at Psy than laughing with him.”

A post at Racialious also brings up, “That’s right: alongside clowns from other mediums like Ken Jeong (and yellow-face disgraces like Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunoishi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s), PSY fits right into the mainstream-friendly role of Asian male jester, offering goofy laughs for all and, thanks to PSY’s decidedly non-pop star looks, in a very non-threatening package. Psy doesn’t even have to sing in English or be understood because it’s not the social critique offered by the lyrics that matters to the audience, but the marriage of the funny music video, goofy dance, and a rather catchy tune, of which two of the elements are comical and, again, non-threatening.”

“The end result, however, is that everyone loses. You see, not only are Asian men stereotyped into certain roles in the public consciousness and have to conform to these roles in order to improve chances for mainstream success in entertainment, but the mainstream then denies itself access to a tremendous cache of quality works and performers of art and entertainment.”

The problematic element the “Gangnam Style” boom holds is that most Americans are unaware of the cultural context in which Psy operates.

An American audience becomes a crowd of spectators looking into a foreign landscape without concrete background needed to develop meaningful interpretation. In such a case, “Gangnam Style” transforms into a gag that makes it vulnerable to the perception of it being beneath normative Hollywood entertainment—and susceptible to fitting neatly into a continually demeaning caricature.

On his guest appearance on Ellen, Psy had to stop amongst the eagerness of both Ellen and Britney to dance in order to ask permission to introduce himself—an awkward drop of the ball on the host’s part. It was a minor yet possible indicator of the rapper’s future in the mainstream media. Psy has been signed under Justin Bieber’s management, which suggests he plans to continue with momentum in the US.

Time will tell if whether Psy will remain in the spotlight and progress as a serious artist to break the Eurocentric mold of mainstream entertainment or if he will  fade to black as a passing meme plagued by regressive racial generalizations.

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Zainab Akande

Zainab is a full-time college student born and raised in New York City currently studying mass communications and journalism at the University of Delaware. Her interests include politics, fashion, writing, travel, and unhealthy doses of pop culture.
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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Madhu January 17, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Perhaps the author is reading more into it than she should. Yes its a catchy tune, in a recent public function the song was played a number of times and people young and not too young enjoyed dancing to the music. The language of music is universal one forgets the singer and remembers the song, one of the rare exceptions being such classic as Imagination by Lennon, who was well known activist of his time and who was conveying a message to humankind. I remember some of the well known rock classic forgetting the singers.

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