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[HanCinema's Korea Diary] Satire and Nationalism in PSY's "Gangnam Style"

2012/08/18 | Permalink

I have to admit that when I first came across PSY's smash hit "Gangnam Style" I wasn't at all blown away. K-pop rarely even amuses me, and it took a lot of convincing for me to watch this 37 million hit (and raising) music sensation. However it just keeps popping up all over the media, I mean the song is everywhere! Not that it's the measure of K-pop success (or maybe it is), but it even found its way around the world, and popped out in America. It was time to give it another viewing and see what all the fuss was about.

Perhaps I was hampered by my previous experience with K-pop having lived in Korea for such an extended period of time. I mean, the stuff is literally blaring at you everywhere you go, to the point that, whether you like it or not, you could almost sing along. Don't get me wrong it's catchy stuff, but I personally prefer my taste in music to be decided by myself instead of it being bludgeoned with it. From day one I knew what the hottest songs were and what idols were causing some buzz. Pop-culture in Korea is all encompassing, indiscriminate and simply unavoidable phenomena.

That's probably why I ended up loving PSY efforts in "Gangnam Style"; not because it has become phenomenally popular (no argument there), but because of PSY's brilliant use of comedy and satire as he tackle contemporary Korean society. It might not look like it on the surface or at first, but PSY's video portrays a wide range of social pressure points in Korea.

Almost 40 million views is just incredible!

PSY seems oblivious to the fact that trash is flying everywhere...I thought this was Gangnam?

In one scene, for example, PSY is in a sauna with two other men while he himself is dressed rather, shall we say, feminine. He proceeds to rest his head on the big man in the sauna with him, while he gazes upon the younger man's tattooed body. Also the video's popular 'horses riding' dance is another element that carriers through the video, as he cries "Op, Op, Op, Op, Oppa is Gangnam style". The analogy that PSY is making here isn't for me to say, but its all very suggestive and wickedly satirical.

*No horses were injuried during the production of this video. 

One of my favourite moments in the video as the camera pulls back to reveal PSY on the toilet.

From the very first moments of the video you get a great, and of course very funny, shot of PSY living it up as we see him being fanned by a good-looking women while, we assume, he is on beautiful paradise beach somewhere. The "Dream" he is living was just that, as the camera reveals he is actually in a children's playground being obnoxious, with his little dancing friend (man a love that guy). There is another similar scene later on in the video where the camera sharply pulls back to revel PSY (at the height of his build-up) actually squatting on the toilet. It's a great play on expectation and actuality, fantasy and reality, and is used by PSY to lampoon modern Korean society. The irony isn't lost on me here, but it goes even further because of the K-pop context we are dealing with. The music is too catchy and the buzz around this track too deafening, for anyone to really see what PSY is saying, but I, for one, love that about it.

It's no beach, but don't tell PSY that!

Korea is known for its seemingly unrelenting sense of ethic nationalism, a cultural cornerstone that stems from Korea's long and turbulent history with problematic neighbours, as well as their position and rise within the globalised world. In this sense PSY's music video is a surprisingly refreshing portrayal of Korea and its culture by one if its own. His unflattering commentary on Korean culture is blunted by the sidesplitting humour of the piece, as it's hard to ask 'real' questions when things gets going with that 'riding-a-horse' dance he does. I think that the popularity of the song is more linked to these comical aspects of the music video, as well as the songs addictive lyrics and its placement with Korean pop music. The 'critical' aspects of the video are lost in the haze of cultural expectations within the K-pop music world through the video's glitzy videos, synchronized dancing, outrageous enactments, and, of course, the beautiful and alluring women.

PSY's dream girl joins him for the ride.

The video ends on another interesting note as PSY is accompanied by a mass of 'ordinary' Koreans. There are teachers, doctors, business, people dressed in hanboks, as a wide range of Korean personalities and stereotypes fall into line as PSY leads the way to that final, very Korean, pose. Here PSY's social commentary is being transferred/extended to the rest of the nation, as all are seemingly represented in his big climax. Why else have these background dancers dress the way they are, if not to make the suggestion that Korean culture is being represented here?

And there's that pose that ends it all, wonderfully Korean!

PSY and Bieber? Who would've thought it!

PSY's has had a number of live shows as a result of this production, and news reports are saying that the American teen-wonder Justin Beiber is flying PSY out to the U.S to talk about the video. This Korean 'B-list' comedic talent also released a new version of the song that some will either love or hate, depending on how strong your feelings are towards the original. I personally don't have a problem with the new video, as long as you not talking about quality, style, or originality. It's cute and different, but it's a tack-on that looks like it was thrown together during PSY phone calls with Mr. Bieber's manager. The kind of thing the big executives slapped each others backs for at the end of a meeting, a money-grabbing effort that, unlike the original video, fails to make you laugh, think, or hit repeat.

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