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16 Sep 2012

Dead horse – I have officially become sick of PSY’s (relatively) new song, “Gangnam Style.” When the video first hit the internet, I thought it was quite clever, and with a catchy tune to boot. Now, less than a month later, I find myself wishing that PSY had never unleashed this horror on the world.

“It just frustrates me to see the newly-spawned meme being used with no regard for what I considered the song’s true meaning.”

There was a point where I considered writing a faux-serious piece on the genius of “Gangnam Style,” inspired in part by a line in the description under the video (you can read it by clicking “Show more” under the video in the above link): “The song is characterized by its strongly addictive beats and lyrics, and is thus certain to penetrate the foundations of modern philosophy.” Interestingly enough, that last part about penetrating the foundations of modern philosophy is missing from the Korean version right below it—perhaps PSY (or, more likely, his PR machine) wasn’t confident that a Korean audience would get the sarcasm? Still, it made me laugh, and it did make me contemplate, however briefly, writing a weighty piece on the song and video here on Liminality. Think “Sokal hoax” meets Rolling Stone.

The good news is that I was able to resist this temptation. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that I was not committed enough to the idea to take it from a funny concept all the way through to what would most likely be a painful execution, but resisting temptation is more heroic than lacking motivation, so I’m going with the former.

The bad news, though, is that I ended up writing an entry about “Gangnam Style” anyway. It’s not what I had originally imagined, but the subject matter is the same, so I guess I’m not that heroic after all. But the road to what you are reading now was not a straight one. I started writing this on Tuesday after hearing yet another version of the song being sung by some students on campus. I intended it to be a short note (that is, under a thousand words, as opposed to a full-fledged entry, which is a thousand words or more), really just a quick rant about how I was getting tired of people reappropriating the song while apparently being oblivious to its message. But once I started writing this rant I realized that there were some pretty big holes in my argument, and in the interest of intellectual honesty I could not let them stand. So I stopped writing on Tuesday and picked up again on Wednesday. Then I let it rest on Thursday and came back to it on Friday, and now it is Sunday and I am finally wrapping this up. I did consider dropping this (there have been plenty of entries that I have abandoned after getting stuck, and even entries that I have completed and then simply tossed in the dust bin), but by that point I had too much invested and just had to see it through. I’ve tried to smooth things out as best as I can, but some of the wrinkles and bumps may remain.

Interestingly enough, my first exposure to “Gangnam Style” came not from the Korean media, but from CNN. When I feel like watching the news in the morning, I will often flip back and forth between the BBC and CNN, partly because it’s amusing to see the differences between the two. One morning I just happened to catch a culture segment on CNN, and to my surprise a woman was going on about a new video from the Korean rapper PSY. I turned on my computer and a short while later I was on YouTube, watching the video for the first (but not anywhere near the last) time.

I thought it was brilliant. The song is catchy, of course, but the video is really what sold it for me because it is so funny. To this day I cannot watch the video without at least smiling at the part where No Hong-cheol does his hip-thrust dance in the elevator. What made it more than just another catchy song and funny video, though, was the way things were not always what they seemed. Let me take you through the video step by step (if you haven’t watched it yet, now is the time). I know plenty of others have talked about the underlying themes at work here (my identical twin Kevin, for example, has discussed the song before), but the following is a necessary foundation for the rest of the entry, especially for those not familiar with the song and video (hi, Mom). If you don’t want to watch the video for whatever reason or just don’t want to slog through my play-by-play, you’ll want to skip the next five paragraphs. (Actually, if you’re not interested in watching the video you should probably just skip the next sixteen paragraphs, but that’s up to you.)

We start with an extreme close-up of a single lens in PSY’s sunglasses, although we don’t know that we’re looking at a pair of sunglasses yet. Then we pull back to see the girl with the fan and get a hint of the convex shape of the lens. But the initial reveal doesn’t come until 0:05, when the camera pulls back again and we see PSY’s face. PSY gives us the now famous refrain, “Oppan Gangnam Style!” and a shift in camera angle at 0:11 shows us that he is lounging on a beach—or at least that is what we are led to believe, until the camera cranes back to show us that he has set up camp in a playground. Notice, if you can take your eyes off that ajeossi-looking little kid with the sweet dance moves, that there is no girl with a fan anywhere in sight.

We then are treated to cross-cuts between the playground scene and a stable, foreshadowing the “horse dance” for which the video has become famous. At around 0:33 we have PSY walking out of a tunnel with a girl in each arm, but it quickly becomes clear that something is not right, with garbage and later what I can only assume is fake snow swirling through the air. After this we have a montage of PSY in a variety of settings, such as a sauna with two gangsters, on a raised platform with two “old men” playing janggi (typically known as “Chinese chess” in the West), in an indoor tennis court, and on a bus bedecked with disco balls and colored lights. All of the settings are rather odd, especially given the supposed theme of “Gangnam Style,” referring to a trendy and well-to-do area of Seoul. My particular favorite is the bus—you would expect PSY to be in one of Gangnam’s many clubs, and a less imaginative rapper would have been, but instead he’s on a bus that has been turned into an impromptu dance club for a group of middle-aged and elderly women. (And, yes, this does actually happen in Korea. If you ever find yourself driving down an expressway in Korea and pass a tour bus, a closer look might reveal that it is shaking.)

After the explosion we get the horse dance in all its glory, first with the group of white-clad dancers and then in various locales, including some we have already seen. At around 1:37 we get a close-up of a gluteus maximus, followed by PSY’s rather passionate reaction to it (a scene that produced what I believe is the best piece of art to come out of this whole craze). Then we transition to an underground parking lot and a scene that probably won’t be quite as amusing for viewers not familiar with the Korean comedy scene. The guy who steps out of the Benz at 1:42 is Yu Jae-seok in a very entertaining cameo, as it goes against his usual persona. The next cameo, however, by No Hong-cheol (whom I mentioned above) at 1:54, is completely in keeping with his persona. The strange thing is that I’ve never been a huge fan, but that dance just kills me. I know its completely juvenile, but I’m going through the video yet again to write this and I find myself laughing for what must be the thirtieth time.

The cameos continue with the 2:10 scene shift to the subway. (An American friend who saw the video commented on how incredibly clean the subway is. Not all subways are actually that clean here—some of the older lines can get quite grungy—but overall the subway is rather clean compared to, say, the New York subway or the Paris metro (the latter of which I only remember as constantly reeking of urine).) “Subway girl,” as some of my American friends dubbed her, is Hyuna, a girl group singer. I don’t really have too much to say about this part; I’ll just let you watch her pole dance on the subway for now.

Still with me? Sorry to interrupt your viewing, but we have another interesting scene at 2:38. Here we get PSY coming up out of the water with swim goggles on. Surely he must be in a classy indoor swimming pool somewhere in Gangnam, right? Nope—the camera zooms back and we see that he is actually in a bath house. (Funny that I just noticed this, but I only now realize that if he had been in a public indoor swimming pool he probably would have had a swim cap on.) More Hyuna, more horse dancing, and then some splashing around as the poor guy in the bath is trying to figure out what is going on. Then at 3:02 the scene shifts again, and at 3:09 we get a very quick, tight shot of him from above. Then we cut back to that shot again at 3:12 to find out that he is sitting on the toilet, apparently taking care of business. The final twenty or so seconds of the actual song is more dancing, followed by a revisit of the underground parking lot, ending with one final shot of the explosion (hey, if you’re going to have an explosion, you might as well get some mileage out of it, right?).

As I said above, when I first saw the video, I thought it was brilliant. It helps, of course, to be able to understand the lyrics as well—if you’re really interested in exactly in their contents, I’m sure you could find a translation somewhere on the internet, but all you really need to know is that “Gangnam style” refers to girls who are demure by day but know how to let their hair down by night. And that, of course, this is just the style of girl that PSY likes. So already in the lyrics we have a duality going on, where girls are one thing by day and another thing by night. But the video adds another layer of duality—that things may not be what they first appear to be. The opening playground “beach” scene, the bath house “pool” scene, or any of the other odd locales PSY ends up in all stand in stark contrast to the image most rappers try to convey. Could it be that this “Gangnam style” is nothing but empty boasting?

This is, at least, how I saw the song and video—as a clever bit of social satire and criticism. In those first few days I must have watched the video at least a dozen times. I don’t drink coffee or energy drinks, so “Gangnam Style” was like a little pick-me-up I could count on throughout the day. I sent the link to friends and family. Some appreciated it—some even enjoyed it—while some quietly but decisively cut off all communication with me. That’s OK, though. Who needs friends like that, anyway?

Everything was fine for a while, but then it happened. It started slowly at first, just a mere trickle, but it quickly swelled into a raging flood: the meme phase. This was when “Gangnam” became just another place name and the empty “_____ Style” container meme was born (for all you internet geeks out there, think “All your _____ are belong to us”). Once that happened, people began to fill that container with whatever appealed to them, giving a phrase that originally had a playfully mocking tone a positive meaning completely devoid of irony. Note that this is different from reinterpretations, which I’ll get to in a moment, or parodies—although to tell you the truth I have found most of the parodies of “Gangnam Style” to be rather tedious. What I’m talking about is things like the use of the song in a commercial for LG U+, or when a politician gives a speech on building up the country outside of Seoul by saying that we need things like “Daegu Style” or “Gyeongju Style” as well—or when some HUFS students alter the lyrics and start singing about “HUFS Style.”

Now, I don’t necessarily oppose the use of pop culture for marketing, commercial or non-commercial. After all, pop culture itself is one big marketing machine. Companies have been using famous songs in commercials for decades, and politicians have probably been plucking elements from pop culture for even longer than that in an attempt to fool the public into thinking that they are “in touch.” It just frustrates me to see the newly-spawned meme being used with no regard for what I considered the song’s true meaning.

And this, dear reader, is the point at which I nearly broke an ankle in a hole in my argument. You know that LG U+ commercial I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago? Not only did it use PSY’s song and dance, it featured PSY himself, mugging for the camera and gleefully singing “LG U+ style!” I realized that this made it a bit silly for me to be carrying on about how commercials were “distorting” the song’s original meaning. Of course, there is the question of how much authority an artist has over his work after that work has been released into the wild (cf. the absolutely insane level of hatred that some Star Wars fans have for George Lucas and his revisionist ways), but I suspect that trying to attach too much importance to any given interpretation of the song would only make PSY laugh. I mean, you saw the video, right? It’s ridiculous. Awesome and funny, too, in my opinion, but still ridiculous.

And there there’s the “Hyuna version,” as everyone who has mentioned it to me has called it. Now before you click on that link, I have to warn you: it contains near lethal amounts of what I am hereby dubbing “sexycute.” You will already know what sexycute is if you have ever seen a Korean girl group. But it is not a concept completely unfamiliar in the West, either. (WARNING: do not click on that link if you are reading this from a work computer. There’s no nudity or anything, but you may still have a hard time explaining to your boss why you were there.) If you haven’t guessed already, it is a combination of “sexy” and “cute” that can be somewhat disturbing at times, since the former indicates maturity while the latter generally indicates the opposite.

But that’s an entirely different can of worms, and one that I will not feast on right now. The point is that the Hyuna reinterpretation is pretty much a blatant attempt to take advantage of her popularity and sexycuteness, despite the fact that she sounds like a chipmunk. I resisted watching this video for weeks, but finally broke down because I couldn’t very well write this entry without watching the video. Actually, I watched it twice, but not for the reason you might think—I wanted to make sure that there really was nothing but dancing through the entire video. And there is indeed nothing but dancing. I will admit that the choreography is pretty good when they’re not relying on standard sexycute moves, but otherwise I find the video completely vapid. The song has been stripped of any context that may have been offered by the original video.

And that’s a pretty good segue into a realization that I had the day after I started writing this entry. It was Wednesday afternoon, and I was walking back home after class. A lone student was standing at a crosswalk with a microphone and an amplifier, advertising some sort of student meeting to be held the next day. I was not paying too much attention to what he said, since I generally zone out when I am walking around campus, but then I heard the words “Gangnam Style.” He said that they would be giving a performance of the song, but “simply dancing to it would not be very meaningful, so we changed the lyrics to Oedae Style.” (“Oedae,” which sounds a bit like “way-day,” is the Korean pronunciation of HUFS.)

At that moment, I had an epiphany. In my mind, the song and video had always been inseparable. Perhaps this is because my first (and second, and third, and fourth...) exposure to the song was through the video, but it’s probably also because the video highlights the social criticism aspect of the song. Without the video, the song still contrasts the two sides of a Gangnam girl—in essence, a girl who is demure by day but lets her hair down at night—but the “message” is definitely weaker (as seen in the “Hyuna version”). For most people, though, whether they’ve seen the video or not, the greater part of their exposure comes in the form of song only, as you can’t go anywhere without hearing it these days. So what are we left with without those carefully choreographed set pieces in the video? A funny song and a funny dance. I had always associated a very specific meaning with the song, but when I heard this student talk about imbuing the song and dance with meaning, I realized that not everyone shared my opinion. For these students, the song by itself was mere entertainment with no deeper meaning—it was a canvas on which they could paint their own meaning. Do I agree with them? Not at all, but can I really say that their meaning is not valid? Sure, I can mock them and disparage their meaning for being overly earnest and naïve, but if it works for them, who am I to say that their meaning is “wrong”? And if I am to be completely honest, I did plenty of things that were overly earnest and naïve as an undergrad. That’s just part of being young.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m still sick of the way “Gangnam Style” has exploded and the way that everyone and their second cousin is making their own version of it. The original was clever and funny, and most of the meme versions I’ve seen have been neither. But I’ll admit that you have every right to claim the meme as your own and imbue the song with whatever meaning you see fit. However, I’ll also reserve the right to grimace and shake my head every time I hear you singing about whatever “style” happens to be the flavor of the day. And when the world has finally beaten this dead horse until it splits open and spills its putrid innards into the sewer, causing everyone to flee in repulsion and move on to the new hotness, I will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Especially since I just wrote over thirty-three hundred words on “Gangnam Style,” and I cannot even begin to tell you how annoyed that makes me.

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