The Serious Reality Behind “Gangnam Style”

25 Aug

Psy and "Gangnam Style" When I read “Gangnam Style, Dissected“, I had this brief flutter of nostalgia for the times when I strove to listen to and translate K-Pop, read books, travel to temples and palaces, and speak in Korean any chance I could. Then, I would have stopped to research this new tidbit of Koreana I had missed. That initiative expired for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. I was waiting to do so in a blog at some future point. I don’t know if I’m relieved or jealous, but Max Fisher has expressed one aspect of my disenchantment with South Korea and its culture, in a phrase, “Gangnam-Style”, a song and accompanying video by South Korean performer, Park Jaesang, or Psy).

The video is “a satire about Gangnam itself but also it’s about how people outside Gangnam pursue their dream to be one of those Gangnam residents without even realizing what it really means,” [U.S.-based Korean blogger Jea] Kim explained to me when I got in touch with her. Koreans “really wanted to be one of them,” but she says that feeling is changing, and “Gangnam Style” captures people’s ambivalence.

“Koreans have been kind of caught up in this spending to look wealthy, and Gangnam has really been the leading edge of that,” [Adrian] Hong said. “I think a lot of what [Psy] is pointing out is how silly that is. The whole video is about him thinking he’s a hotshot but then realizing he’s just, you know, at a children’s playground, or thinking he’s playing polo or something and realizes he’s on a merry-go-round.”

“Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic.”

Psy hits all the symbols of Gangnam opulence, but each turns out to be something much more modest, as if suggesting that Gangnam-style wealth is not as fabulous as it might seem. We think he’s at a beach in the opening shot, but it turns out to be a sandy playground. He visits a sauna not with big-shot businessmen but with mobsters, Kim points out, and dances not in a nightclub but on a bus of middle-aged tourists. He meets his love interest in the subway. Kim thinks that Psy’s strut though a parking garage, two models at his side as trash and snow fly at them, is meant as a nod to the common rap-video trope of the star walking down a red carpet covered in confetti. “I think he’s pointing out the ridiculousness of the materialism,” Hong said.

(If you’re wondering about the bizarre episodes in the elevator and with the red sports car, as I was, it turns out that those are probably just excuses for a couple of cameos by TV personalities, which is apparently common in South Korean music videos.)

None of this commentary is particularly overt, which is actually what could make “Gangnam Style” so subversive. Social commentary is just not really done in mainstream Korean pop music, Hong explained. “The most they’ll do is poke fun at themselves a little bit. It’s really been limited.” But Psy “is really mainstreaming it, and he’s doing it in a way that maybe not everybody quite realizes.” Park Jaesang isn’t just unusual because of his age, appearance, and style; he writes his own songs and choreographs his own videos, which is unheard of in K-Pop. But it’s more than that. Maybe not coincidentally, he attended both Boston University and the Berklee College of Music, graduating from the latter. His exposure to American music’s penchant for social commentary, and the time spent abroad that may have given him a new perspective on his home country, could inform his apparently somewhat critical take on South Korean society.

Of course, it’s just a music video, and a silly one at that. Does it really have to be about anything more complicated? “If I hadn’t seen that behind-the-scenes, I would have said he’s just poking fun at himself,” Hong said of the official making-of video. It’s mostly of Park or Psy having fun on set, but at one point he pauses in filming. “Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic. Each frame by frame was hollow,” he sighs, apparently deadly serious. It’s a jarring moment to see the musician drop his clownish demeanor and reveal the darker feelings behind this lighthearted-seeming song. Although, Hong noted, “hollow” doesn’t capture it: “It’s a word that’s a mixture or shallow or hollow or vain,” he explained.

Fisher (and Kim on her excellent blog, My Dear Korea) explains how the Gangnam style took hold.

One of the first things Hong pointed to in explaining the video’s subtext was, believe it or not, South Korea’s sky-high credit card debt rate. In 2010, the average household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent). There are nearly five credit cards for every adult. South Koreans have been living on credit since the mid-1990s, first because their country’s amazing growth made borrowing seem safe, and then in the late 1990s when the government encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian financial crisis. The emphasis on heavy spending, coupled with the country’s truly astounding, two-generation growth from agrarian poverty to economic powerhouse, have engendered the country with an emphasis on hard work and on aspirationalism, as well as the materialism that can sometimes follow.

Gangnam, Hong said, is a symbol of that aspect of South Korean culture. The neighborhood is the home of some of South Korea’s biggest brands, as well as $84 billion of its wealth, as of 2010. That’s seven percent of the entire country’s GDP in an area of just 15 square miles. A place of the most conspicuous consumption, you might call it the embodiment of South Korea’s one percent. “The neighborhood in Gangnam is not just a nice town or nice neighborhood. The kids that he’s talking about are not Silicon Valley self-made millionaires. They’re overwhelmingly trust-fund babies and princelings,” he explained.

I’m relieved that my wife is so spartan with money. It’s a cultural bridge between my German great grandparents’ German frugality and an older Korean disdain for ostentation. Along with my disenchantment with the educational system, it’s two-thirds of the story of how I fell out of love with Korea.

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