By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
If you’re on the Internet regularly, chances are you’ve seen the video for South Korean rap superstar Psy’s global hit “Gangnam Style.”
Last week the video entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the most “liked” video on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 277 million times, and jumped from 64 to 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Moreover, Psy has shown up on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Ellen Degeneres Show” and the “Today” show, and recently signed with Justin Bieber’s manager, pop impresario Scooter Braun.
My exposure to Korean pop, or K-pop, was virtually nil before I finally succumbed to enough people linking to “Gangnam Style” that I watched the video. Like many people, my first response was confusion. I felt like I’d been dropped in the middle of a dozen different Internet memes and inside jokes.
I also thought the video was great Ñ kinetic and oddly beguiling Ñ and assumed K-pop was more egalitarian than its American counterpart if a portly, goofy middle-aged guy with limited dancing ability could be a superstar.
Turns out I was completely wrong.
Psy is a distinctly atypical K-pop star. Most K-pop videos are nothing like “Gangnam Style.” K-pop is, in fact, America’s various strains of Top 40 pop distilled into a more virulent form: brighter, more streamlined and designed for conquering multiple foreign markets.
The K-pop music videos I watched this week are overflowing with uniformly sleek, coiffed, beautiful young people whose aggressive dance moves would leave most American pop stars flustered and panting.
By contrast, “Gangnam Style” is more pointed and sly. Despite looking like someone dropped an update of the Jerry Lewis character from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” into a compilation of random “Family Guy”-style cutaway jokes in a bid for most GIF-able video of the year, “Gangnam Style” is actually satire.
In other words, Psy is in on the joke, which frankly makes me feel better about his new popularity in America.
Gangnam is a wealthy neighborhood in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and the target of gentle ribbing in “Gangnam Style.”
“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,” wrote Max Fisher at The Atlantic in a piece dissecting the imagery. “We think he’s at a beach in the opening shot, but it turns out to be a sandy playground.”
The video skewers materialism, and if Psy looks ridiculous Ñ that’s the point.
The video also seems to be a shot at the conventions of K-pop, which is an extremely serious business in South Korea. A fascinating article about the emerging global dominance of K-pop in Spin magazine published earlier this year before the rise of “Gangnam Style” makes the Korean music business sound as mysterious and intense as joining a secret society of ninjas.
The three biggest labels recruit promising young people from all over the world, then train them rigorously in dance, singing, composition and foreign language in cloistered communities before “debuting” them in prepackaged pop groups and micromanaging their public personas via social media.
“A trainee goes through the regimen for two years,” said Yvonne Yuen, VP of international marketing for Universal Group, in the article. “I’m not sure other countries or labels have that patience. Every time they perform a song, it’s got to be perfect.”
With his horse dancing, voguing while trash blows in his face and aggressive unsexiness, Psy seems to be making fun of this perfection in his video the same way Blink 182 lampooned teen pop stars and boy bands in its video for “All the Small Things” in 2000.
Still, in the end, the K-pop machine is ultimately a more marketable idea than Psy, who strikes me as the latest in a long line of musical imports amounting to little more than a novelty act in America.
That said, my current ranking is “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” > “Gangnam Style” > “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”h