Pop Cult: Gangnam Style Fever
Knee-jerk reactions (the best kind) to pop culture happenings all over the world.Posted by Allen Huang
Pop Cult: On Spectacles Wearing Spectacles
I wanted to avoid writing an entire column devoted to the certified breakout hit of summer 2012. I made a half-assed list about reasons to like Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” attempting to quantify the unquantifiable. But with an explosion of increased attention, excellent analyses of the song such as this one, and the increasing volume of the inevitable yet rote backlash of “this is just Party Rock Anthem but Asian,” it’s been really hard not to think about the effect “Gangnam Style” has had on not only K-Pop’s place in western culture, but also in Korean culture.
The criticism attacking the baseness of the song is always prefaced with a separation of song and image. Statements such as “The video is amazing, but…”, “I can’t stop watching Psy’s dance, but…” preface most culture pundits’ defense of “good taste,” in turn condemning Psy’s appeal to the lowest-club-pop denominator. But separating the image from the tune is counterproductive; pop music is a misnomer these days, rather it should be called Pop Entertainment. With streaming sites such as YouTube and Vevo becoming the premier medium to learn, listen to, and share new music, a clear, deliberate visual element has become just as vital to a song’s success as any sonic composition. This doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of choreography or fancy pyrotechnics; an interesting album cover, a notorious performance art piece, even pretentious Tumblr collages serve to color music with an artist’s intent. While purists may bemoan the endangerment of music for music’s sake (though there is still plenty of that out there), one would be unrealistic to not expect a piece of art with both compelling audio AND visual components to become virulently popular, more so than art with only one of those two components.
This also doesn’t exclusify this phenomenon to just financially back musical endeavors. Both Pop Machines and Bedroom Productions have recently sought to add visual art to their sonic compositions. For example, I saw Portland dance outfit the Miracles Club come through town during the Capitol Hill Block Party. And while the music was good, it was the lone dancer, gyrating dramatically and interacting with the crowd, that really individualized the experience of seeing this band play. Likewise, Amon Tobin’s ISAM tour was praised as a one-of-a-kind experience, with music and visuals crafted specifically to be enjoyed in parallel. So if you’re going to separate Psy’s horsey dance and video from the song, be prepared to strip Of Montreal of their costumes, bar Amanda Palmer her makeup, and tell Stanley Donwood to stay far far away from Radiohead.
So! Things that look good and sound good should be popular. So what? What makes “Gangnam Style” rise above the rest? I can’t say for sure, but looking at that past list tells me a couple things. One: my list is different than everyone else’s. Some people love the editing of the video. Some people love that he is a chubby dude. Some people dig the club-poppy beat, and Psy’s particular cadence. Some people specifically enjoy the scene where the dude pelvic thrusts all day in the elevator. “Gangnam Style”’s song and video seem to have hit multiple people’s sweet spots, in a way that is
So why does Psy > LMFAO? Call me prejudiced but I personally find chubby, Korean Berklee school graduates more charismatic and likable than ex-finance guys who decide to one day grow an afro and do lines of coke with his uncle. Also, while “Party Rock Anthem” is an admittedly fun but precariously brain-dead jam, “Gangnam Style” is a skewering of Korean culture in addition to being a wildly addictive pop song. Gangnam is the hoity-toity rich district of Seoul, every city has a Gangnam. Gangnam is Bellevue, it’s the Upper East Side, it’s Beverly Hills. Psy’s cry of “Oppa Gangnam Style” is the equivalent of a dude coming up to you in a bar and demanding you get with him because he’s from 90210. It’s ridiculous, and it’s supposed to be, and the joke is told oh so sincerely. Tell me if I’m mistaken, but I don’t think “running through these ho’s like drano” has quite that amount of thought put into it. Smart-dumb Party Club anthem >>> dumb-dumb Party Club anthem. Who’d have thunk it?
Now, all eyes are on Psy as he revels in his newfound worldwide stardom. Tweets from T-Pain, Josh Groban and Justin Bieber’s manager have sang the songs praises, and now more and more K-Pop agencies are “seriously considering” activities in the US. The man knows English, the man knows Korean, and he knows how well they can fit together (more so than Japanese or Chinese, which is another article entirely). Also, K-Pop is now in the dictionary, if you didn’t hear already.
If there’s one thing the Korea Pop Machine has excelled at, it’s quickly adapting to new trends. Now with the winds of worldwide popular approval at their backs, will the masters of the Hallyu wave rise to the challenge? Of course. Because Oppa is Gangnam style.