What Does Gangnam Style Mean For (The) US?

Source: http://koreanupdates.com/2012/08/22/psy-gangnam-style-music-video-1-on-itunes-us-chart/
Album Cover, Psy’s Best Sixth (2012)

The viral status of Psy‘s Gangnam Style has reached epic proportions. While some see it as an unprecedented K-pop crossover, others point to its social critique of conspicuous wealth in the South Korean district.  However, the tendency for American mainstream culture to accept stereotypical and reductive images of Asians also plays a part in Psy’s popularity. 

It’s hard to deny that the song has made an impact in media.  Psy’s video appeared at No. 25 on Billboard’s Social 50 chart, which “ranks the most popular artists on YouTube, Vevo, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, using a formula that blends weekly additions of friends/fans/followers along with weekly artist page views and weekly song plays.”  Such popularity also made Psy a fixture in American media, earning a mention on CNN as well as write-ups in major publications such as The Atlantic (more on that later).

In addition to appearing at Dodger Stadium, Psy appeared on VH1’s Big Morning Buzz Live show to teach the dance to the hosts. In addition, the popularity of the song put him in conversation with American music celebrities.   Yang Hyun Suk (the YG of YG Entertainment) sees Psy’s success as an opportunity:  “Regarding the love call from the international pop sensation Justin Bieber, the founder of YG responded, ‘We cannot reveal all the details yet, but an amazing collaboration project is in progress so please look forward to it.’

While some marvel at this popular cultural moment, others seek deeper meaning for Psy’s song in its social critique. Sukjong Hong writes:  “PSY does something in his video that few other artists, Korean or otherwise, do: He parodies the wealthiest, most powerful neighborhood in South Korea. . . . Ultimately, by declaring “Oppa is Gangnam Style,” he turns the lens on Gangnam, getting specific about power and privilege in a country where a single district has long dominated in almost every arena.”  Max Fisher credits Psy as unique in K-pop:   “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.”

I find the Psy phenomenon in the America interesting, not because of what it says about Korea, but what it says about the United States.  Psy’s video did not enter a vacuum; it entered an American popular cultural consciousness that has a history with Korean popular culture in particular, and Asian representations in general.  One fan observes this history in a Tumblr entry,  “Asian Stars and The USA: A History.”  After listing BoA, Wonder Girls, Jin Akanishi, and Girls’ Generation, Asian artists who have been recognized for their talents and attained success in Asian countries but failed to enter the mainstream in the United States, the entry concludes with this observation:

Psy: lol omg guys watch me dance like a horsey.


Psy: Wait what?

Psy’s video owes some of its popularity in the United States to the way the mainstream likes to portray Asian and Asian Americans in popular culture.  One of those ways is in comedic roles, where laughter comes at the expense of Asians and Asian Americans.  Chris Biddle writes about the tendency he sees in films like The Hangover and television shows like The Office:

Now I’m no kill joy, and admittedly am a fan of both the The Hangover and The Office, but while watching these scenes I couldn’t help but think about the fact that the Western audience seems like they just don’t take Asians seriously.  While hearing a French or Latino person speak English might suggest a kind of exoticism, an Asian person speaking English is downright goofy.  While on the outside this racial stereotype might not seem as malicious as some of the ones that Hollywood and broadcast television are guilty of, it nonetheless signifies a serious lack of respect for our Eastern counterparts.

What is missing from much commentary on Psy’s video is the existing American cultural context that embraces stereotypes of Asians while rejecting more realistic portrayals. When people ask why Psy’s video is so popular, this is one of the major issues that goes unanswered. I think more people are laughing at Psy than laughing with him.

The narrative that has emerged around Psy’s success in the United States also distorts the story of K-pop for audiences in the United States. Fisher misspeaks when he characterizes Psy as atypical of artists in K-pop, pointing to this as a reason for his success.  Psy has contemporaries who do the same thing.  At 34, PSY joins other older K-pop artists and groups with successful careers, some of whom debuted around the same time, including Kangta, Park Hyo Shin, Rain, Shinhwa, and Lee Hyori.  K-pop artists ranging from G-Dragon to TVXQ write their own material. Tablo of Epik High graduated from Stanford University.

K-pop has been engaging in socially-relevant issues from the beginning. While Seo Jung Min-gaph, a pop music critic, questions his ultimate impact, Seo Taiji, arguably the grandfather of K-pop, unquestionably engaged social issues in his songs:   “Seo was not only a dancer and musician, but was also an artist who delivered his messages directly to Korean society with his music.”  The narrative seems to be that Psy succeeds because FINALLY K-pop has produced something culturally significant that the United States can recognize. In actuality, Psy is not that different.  He’s not the only one by a long shot.

When thinking about what Gangnam Style means, we have to remember that it just doesn’t ride into an America that has not encountered Korean popular culture. The way we’ve been reading it says something about us in the U.S. as well.

Image: allkpop


‘Gangnam Style’ Viral Video Sends Psy Onto Billboard’s Social 50 Chart,” Billboard

Psy Teaches His ‘Gangnam Style’ Horse Dance on VH1’s ‘Big Morning Buzz Live,’ allkpop

Yang Hyun Suk Discusses His Thoughts on Psy’s Global Success With “Gangnam Style,” allkpop 

Sukjong Hong, Beyond the Horse Dance: Viral Vid ‘Gangnam Style’ Critiques Korea’s Extreme Inequality,” Open City Mag

Max Fisher, Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” The Atlantic

Cho Chung-un, K-pop Still Feels Impact of Seo Taiji & Boys,” The Korea Herald

Chris Biddle, The Asian Stereotype, Other Side of China


Psy Gangnam Style News US TV Appearance, YouTube

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13 thoughts on “What Does Gangnam Style Mean For (The) US?

  1. Hi there,
    I found this blog through the KPOP blog, which I just discovered. I am a PhD candidate in anthropology also doing work on Korean pop culture, but more on the Korean drama side of things. I’ve found the analyses of Gangnam style interesting, and wanted to repost this opinion of an acquaintance, who has a bit more of a cynical take…

    Psy: Less a Master of Satire than a Familiar Symbol of Privilege

    By Daham Chong with Se-Woong Kenneth 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 rumored 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 willfully 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.

    I’m interesting in reading more from you, happy to find your blog!

    1. Bonnie,

      Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to your comment, but as you probably know, Psy has generated a HUGE amount interest. He’s everywhere! 😀 Thanks for reading the blog!

      I’d like to see more about the kinds of responses Psy’s video receives within a Korean context.

  2. Do you know why the author’s premise is prejudiced? I’ll boil it down.

    Because she thinks the fact that we can appreciate “Gangnam style” is only due to racism.

    and yet has never leveled the exact same observation at Reggie Watts for this:

    Sorry for the age restricted link – the song is “F*ck Sh*t Stack”
    Which is A NEAR EXACT ANALOGUE of what PSY did, only it addresses American Hip-Hop.

    So, why can a foreign born black guy make a video parodying hip hop, and it can be appreciated on it’s own merit, but if a Korean guy does a musical culture parody it only caught on because he has manipulated and exploited American stereotypes?

    Why won’t you allow PSY that his video has succeeded on it’s own merits? Why do you find some sinister component to it’s popularity? That seems prejudicial to me.

    I think Anderson needs to take a step back and reexamine the unspoken assumptions in her article.

    FTR, I think both performances are brilliant, and for the same reasons.

    1. Hi Danah,

      Thanks for your comment!

      It’s great that you place Psy’s video in a larger context that includes other artists who use video as parody. However, my article is about understanding how Americans may be making meaning out of the video. Making observations about how Psy’s video relates to other images of Asian masculinity is not prejudicial. Historically, Americans have embraced certain identifiable images of Asian men. Psy is an Asian man who has achieved a huge amount of popularity in a country that does not tend to have many Asian men do so in entertainment. So suggesting that the lack of images of Asian men may have something to do with how Americans see Psy is a reasonable idea to consider.

      Psy owe his success to a number of factors; I never deny this. I merely explore that the American expectation about Asian masculinity may be one of them, one that had not been explored up to this point. Since I published this, others, including this one from Racialicious.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Well, it sounds like I was reading something into your criticism that you were not saying. I guess for me, I didn’t see anything prejudicial in the way Psy represented himself. I saw it as satire or parody. It may have been self-deprecating to some extent, but I guess I don’t associate that with misrepresenting an entire continent of people – I didn’t see that representation at all, until you made it. Was I doing that subconsciously? I’m not certain. I find a lot of Asian men to be attractive, and certainly more than a few to be athletic, and some famous ones (like Jet Li) to certainly be masculine enough for me. =) I guess I just don’t make the connection to what Psy was doing with some sort of race-centric emasculation of Asian men. Maybe that’s where you and I part ways.

        Then again, I’m not from South Korea, or even from any Asian country, nor am I deeply immersed in Asian culture. My lived experience with unearned privilege and marginalization comes from other things – so maybe I lack the appropriate lens to view it.

        That said, I thought his performance was comedic artistic commentary. I didn’t look at the man as “less than”. If anything, I felt that the video served to empower him, as a brilliant observer of culture, and as a guy who himself seemed to play an everyman, even underdog in his own video who transcends that through his performance – he seems both awkward and iconic at the same time, in the same effortless way (apologies for making the comparison again) that Reggie Watts manages to do. I think it’s great, personally.

  3. The Gangam craze reminds me of the bigoted, racist stereotypes perpetuated in the “Macarena” craze. If you recall, “La Macarena” was a Spanish dance routine (originating in a song celebrating a Catholic ritual of Semana Santa in Sevilla, Spain) which was appropriated by racists (e.g. “whites”) in the United States (like Madeline Albright: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsLFGGO6_f0) to demean and show contempt for the Spanish “Other”. Note in the video clip that she is “teaching” (aka “colonizing and ridiculing”) the Minister of Botswana…

    “La Macarena” soared to great popularity in American dance clubs because it let white Americans parade about as if they were black Africans (let us recall the white slogan: “L’Afrique commence aux Pyrénées”) in a nouveau formulation of blackface. European-Americans seize on every opportunity they can find to express their contempt for, loathing of, and distancing from any racial “Other”, often through appropriation.

    This Gangam craze, the latest of this series of bigoted atrocities in which whites exhibit their purported supremacy by mocking others, is part of a wider cultural trend which includes white “acceptance” of Japanese, Korean, Indian, Thai, and Chinese food. The apparent “popularity” of these culinary traditions is actually a form of European Imperialist Mockery: Asian cuisine is eaten as a means of exhibiting hyper-masculinity through feats of stamina of forcing raw fish, fried rice, and chicken vindaloo into one’s mouth, coyly subverting heteronormative revulsion of fellatio imagery as a means of demeaning Asian peoples).

    Worse yet is the perpetuation of the popularity of the video among Latinos, African-Americans, other Asian- Americans and mixed-race Americans who have so internalized the bigoted hegemonic patterns of racism perpetuated by white American society that they have (through “false consciousness”) demonstrated a liking of the Gangnam style. This is the crowning victory of white, racist (are the terms distinguishable?) hegemonic domination: when a Korean American claims they like the video, they have perfected the will of the white racist supra-culture which seeks racial domination through cultural erasure and affinity.

    1. I don’t know about the Macarena, so I cannot speak on that.

      However, it is clear that American culture is not replete with images of Asian masculinity too different from the one in Gangnam Style. It is not unreasonable to question whether this is part of the popularity of the song. If you’d like more information on historical images Asian men, consult Robert G. Lee’s Orientalisms or Jachinson Chan’s Chinese American Masculinities: From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. I’m actually really happy that you mentioned this issue. Korean comedy has a long history of social commentary, particular traditional theater. I feel Americans believe they invented political criticism, while it has been a prominent feature in Asian poetry since before Europeans even had a concept of bureaucracy/meritocracy (aka government). On a lighter note, I love the blog. You are where I turn to for privilege/race/gender conscious kpop news! I find most sites to be condescending or snobby, but I must say I appreciate your honesty and educated background. You avoid all of the pitfalls that mainstream American English language white-privilege websites find themselves mired in. Again, your work is really appreciated.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! Psy has sparked a lot of discussion about what the video means and how audiences are reading the image. You make a really great point about Korean comedy and social commentary.

      Thanks for reading the blog! I’ll try to continue to provide insightful commentary on Kpop!

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