Sometimes, just sometimes, a foreign pop music phenomenon breaks through the barriers erected around the English-language markets that dominate global music profit-making. Without doubt the grating dance-pop of South Korean hit “Gangnam Style” represents one of these moments. Complete with a novelty dance, the song’s music video has gone viral on YouTube and the track is on high rotation around the world.
None of this would be worth a post on Left Flank, except that accompanying Psy’s breakthrough (off his sixth album of self-produced and somewhat unconventional K-Pop) has been a welter of commentary claiming a culturally subversive — and perhaps even anti-capitalist — quality to the song. The fun Psy pokes at the cashed up and overblown lifestyles and habits of Seoul’s richest quarter apparently goes beyond gentle satire by an insider, and instead points an accusing finger at South Korea’s “1 percent”.
For a good example of this genre one needs look no further than Max Fisher’s hopelessly contradictory piece for The Atlantic — where criticism of the hollowness of Gangnam highlife and those who aspire to join it apparently amount to a critique of the inequality and materialism of all of South Korean society. Fisher seems unsure as to why an obvious novelty video hit employing many of the stale musical tropes lately associated with the hyper-commercial US EDM industry has taken off outside Korea, and so flails about trying to locate it in a particular political conjuncture. The closest he gets to the truth is in quoting a Korean blogger who admits the global appeal of Psy’s hit may be because it is “more in the American style”.
More egregious is Damien Spruce’s effort on Australia’s Left-leaning New Matilda website, which argues, “PSY has not chosen a randomly pleasant neighbourhood to target his attack: he is aimed directly at the heart of South Korean capitalism.” Yet, revealingly, he paraphrases Psy’s own claims about the song’s message, that it is a warning for ordinary Koreans not to covet the hollow culture that Gangnam elites want the rest of the Korean population to aspire to. It is a funny kind of subversive message coming from one of those elites, of the super-rich assuring the working masses that money doesn’t buy happiness. Spruce also manages to find a cutting critique of Korean ties to US imperialism in the equestrian imagery of Psy’s video, perhaps intent on reducing his piece to a satirical intervention all its own. He seems to think that a super-wealthy scion of the Gangnam elite poking fun at his own social set somehow makes his message more radical, mistaking Psy’s ennui for politics.
As an antidote to this kind of nonsense, we post a recent piece by two South Korean writers familiar with both Gangnam and Psy. In just a few words, Daham Chong and Se-Woong Kenneth Koo manage to put the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon in perspective where many Anglophone writers have failed so embarrassingly. Thanks to Owen Miller for alerting us to this, and for pointing out that sensible commentary on the song seems to become harder to find the further you get from where it was produced. And many thanks to the authors for their permission to reproduce the article.
Psy: Less a Master of Satire than a Familiar Symbol of Privilege
By Daham Chong with Se-Woong Koo
At nearly forty, I have been a resident of Gangnam, Seoul, for almost three decades. For quite some time I have followed the career of Psy, a Korean singer who has skyrocketed to international fame by referencing my neighborhood in his latest album. As a Gangnamite, I find his musical sensibility, including that expressed in his recent mega hit “Gangnam Style,” neither refreshing or entertaining. His oeuvre, from the beginning of his career all the way to the present, illustrates nothing more than the mentality of privileged Gangnam youths in the ’90s who hopped from one hot nightclub to another in search of easy nocturnal entertainment.
If you did not know, Gangnam, located south of the Han River that bisects the city, is a storied part of Seoul in Korean cultural imagination, standing for the richest of the rich, the chicest of the chic. It arguably has the best shops, restaurants, and schools. Its residents are believed to be moneyed and urbane. The president himself attends church in the heart of Gangnam despite having an address far north of the river. That is why Psy’s rendering of Gangnam in his music and video, kitschy to the max, has been interpreted as having a critical take on Korean society.
Most people do not realize that Psy’s background was best explained several years ago when he appeared on TV with his closest friend. They were remarkable clones of my high school classmates who drove around Gangnam’s entertainment district at night in pricy imported sports cars. His friend, Chungdam Whistle (in reference to the most ostentatious pocket of Gangnam), was rumoured to have ruled the Gangnam club scene with his Lamborghini, and together with Psy, he was featured on multiple television variety shows, showing off dance moves and sharing stories from back when their much younger selves played hard. They were able to package and sell with great success the lifestyle of mindless Gangnam princelings to an audience that found it both utterly hilarious and immeasurably enviable.
Psy’s dance, which many people have embraced for being new and fun, is actually so familiar to me that it borders on being trite. If you are around my age and grew up attending high school in Gangnam, you probably understand what I mean. Because throughout the early ’90s this kind of childish, comic dancing could be seen in every classroom at just about every Gangnam school. Friends who had no interest in studying and virtually lived their lives at nightclubs would flock together in the back of the classroom and practice the dances familiar from the clubs. Psy replicates those moves in his choreography.
As someone who has seen and experienced Gangnam on the ground, I have trouble believing that the critics who call “Gangnam Style” a subversive commentary on social inequality in Korea really understand Psy or Gangnam. Psy attended high school in Gangnam, frequented Gangnam clubs popular among children of wealthy Gangnamites, studied in the U.S. much as many Gangnam students did and still do, and attempted to skirt mandatory military service as the privileged Gangnam elite are often accused of doing. Psy, Gangnam to his core, is less a master of satire than a true emblem of Gangnam elitism, and the Gangnam he invites viewers into is not an ironic take on the area or those living in it, but the reality of Gangnam that he has inhabited: a wealthy but tasteless enclave full of privileged citizens who unabashedly celebrate the absurd, over-the-top nature of their existence. Psy is unalterably, irrefutably its constituent.
The unfortunate truth of the popular music scene in Korea is that any music that is truly subversive, whether musically or politically, has little hope of finding commercial success. Psy’s music, had it been wilfully injected with a satirical spirit, would have suffered the same fate. The only thing ironic about “Gangnam Style” is that commentators, determined to identify a convincing reason for the implausible worldwide success of this insubstantial song, have pronounced it a serious embodiment of contemporary social anxiety, when the only thing it speaks to is the vacuity of Korean popular music and, by extension, of the most privileged class in Korea that has produced it.