I was a little on the late side, but one recent evening in the Whitman dining hall I was finally exposed to “Gangnam Style” on a friend’s phone. For those of you who don’t know, “Gangnam Style” is a Korean pop song by an artist known as Psy (short for psycho), and its music video reaches an inspired level of absurdity. At the time, I was passively entertained yet ultimately unmoved. The video was kind of funny, I admitted, but nothing I necessarily needed to see it again. It was just another viral video that I now knew existed but would be content to pretentiously ignore.
My determined apathy toward Psy hit an obstacle a few days later when on my Facebook News Feed I stumbled across an August 23rd article by Max Fisher on theatlantic.com called “Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation.” Now I was intrigued. It turns out that Psy, whose real name is Park Jaesang, is not your average K-Pop sensation. The 34-year-old Jaesang has a history of controversy and challenging the status quo, both of which are anomalies in the idyllic, superficial world of standard K-Pop. Gangnam, a famously wealthy segment of Seoul, South Korea, was chosen as a target, representing to Jaesang the meaningless vanities of the well-to-do.
If, like I did, you still think The Atlantic might be reading too much into the patently silly video, Jaesang himself had something to add. Behind the scenes of the music video shoot, he candidly told the camera (roughly translated from Korean), “Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic.” It sickens him to even parody the hyper-affluent lifestyle he finds so abhorrent. The article itself goes into more detail, and I would recommend reading it. But what does it mean that this song gained such widespread popularity here in the states, where almost nobody has any idea what it’s about?
Well, there are some close-ups of butts in the video, so that certainly doesn’t hurt. And maybe the visuals imply a skewering of the rich that appeals to our sensibilities, whether consciously or not. But, and I can only speak for myself, my main thought while watching the video was, “This is utterly ridiculous. Boy, those Koreans sure are crazy.”
I pride myself on being pretty culturally sensitive, but I mainly enjoyed “Gangnam Style” because it allowed me to be casually racist. It felt justified at the time, because have you seen those dance moves? But I think it’s interesting that, in my limited discussions of “Gangnam Style,” only one friend had noticed what is in retrospect rather unsubtle satire, and said friend happens to be Korean-American. Everyone else has been blissfully happy to just assume that Psy is a crazy person.
One explanation may be a national unwillingness (or inability) to deal with nuance. And there might be a point to that; it is far easier not to do the research, not to think critically, to take everything at face value. But it goes deeper—we do not understand the “other,” and would expect anything of them. It’s why we have trouble differentiating actual Sarah Palin quotes from Tina Fey’s exaggerated versions, or why earlier this year a Republican congressman soberly posted an article entitled “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex” to his Facebook page…from The Onion. Or why I so easily attributed abject lunacy to a Korean pop star.
But maybe I’ve just talked to the wrong people; if you, dear reader, picked up on any of the nuances, or suspected something deeper, or even just weren’t moved to racism, I admire you. You are, in at least one sense, a better person than I am. But people like me can learn! Let us spread the true meaning of Psy’s vision, and appreciate his artistry for what it truly is, lest the majority continue living in sheltered ignorance rivaling that of Gangnam residents.