COCCHI: “Gangnam Style” Subtext

Tom Cocchi
SGA President

If you are an alive person reading this article right now, you have probably heard the South Korean pop (K-pop) hit “Gangnam Style.” If you are not an alive person reading this article right now, then you are probably a ghost. Getting back to my main point though, most of the readers of this article will have heard “Gangnam Style.” If you have not heard it for some reason, I encourage you to find an audio copy of it and listen to it, but please, for the love of God, do not watch the music video. If you are at all like me, you will be confused but strangely compelled by it, will fall into a brutal kind of love with it and will research its significance until it takes you down a road which you do not want to go down.
I’ll summarize the video to save you the trouble: An Asian man, Psy, is lying on a beach, being fanned by a beautiful woman, when suddenly the camera pans out and you see that he is sitting in a sandy area outside of a children’s playground. In the next scene you see him walking down the lane of a barn, horses all around him, and very shortly after is found to be, in fact, on a merry-go-round. Beginning to see a pattern? Towards the end of our video Psy lip-syncs to the camera, in the style of an American rap artist, until the camera PANS OUT to reveal that Psy is on a toilet. Interjected in between these various themed items are scenes featuring Korean TV personalities, which my subsequent research into the “rich” and “deep” history of K-pop revealed are standard in this genre of music.
Psy also yells at a woman’s rear end while she’s doing yoga.
Most normal people would merely comment on how that video was “interesting” or “funny.” But a festering obsession grew inside me, and I desired to know more than anyone should know about the meaning behind any music video.
Psy, though born and bred in South Korea, studied in America for a good part of his higher education, which led him to do the most shocking thing to ever happen in the history of K-pop: he included SUBTEXT in his music! I know, for our western sensibilities subtext is not shocking (note that I am not a western bigot, but that my statements, are informed by articles written by Korean Americans). In America we are used to popular songs having hidden (or not so hidden) meanings. “Born in the U.S.A.” is a great example of social commentary in music. However, in Korea, where K-pop is a relatively new form of musical expression, the main points of the songs generally don’t contain a large amount of social criticism. This is where “Gangnam Style” gets interesting.
Every country has a super wealthy class, a “1%.” In Korea, this group of people just so happens to most often live in an area called “Gangnam.” Also, as a consequence of the Korean War, most of these people are young and newly rich, and sometimes forgo essentials such as food in order to pay for more publicly extravagant purchases. One specific instance of this was the growing trend among Korean youth of eating Ramen noodles in order to be able to afford trips to the local Starbucks for the equivalent of eight-dollar lattes. Remember the themes we talked about in the music video? Where Psy was shown in scenes made to look opulent and extravagant which, when given a second look, were shown to be fake and cheap representations of said opulent and extravagant scenes? Those scenes were representations of what the lives of these young rich people are like, scrimping and saving on essentials so as to be able to afford ridiculously overpriced luxuries. Yeah, that’s what is considered glaring cultural commentary in his neck of the woods.
Even though he pushed the envelope, Psy managed to do very well in South Korea, where “Gangnam Style” has been a chart topper. Its popularity in America has come about by its success on YouTube, and because it allows Americans to feel cultured and sophisticated because they are “in touch” with foreign cultures while pretending to ride a horse in public. Psy himself is amazed by the success of the song, posting in an AMA (“ask me anything”) on Reddit.com that the sudden success was overwhelming to him and his family, who come from humble beginnings.
As stated before, I obviously found this whole video, the social commentary and the song itself, to be vastly more interesting than anything going on in America right now, although I heard there was some big election or something. So, I went to YouTube, which for our generation has become a news source, entertainment source and a general black hole for productivity and precious free time, and watched some of the parodies. Some were better than others, but I couldn’t help but wonder all the while, what would a Saint Vincent “Gangnam Style” parody look like? Surely it would have to include people dancing in front of the basilica, in the caf, etc. This video could feature random campus “celebrities” such as the homecoming king or queen. So this is my challenge to those of you who are more creative with the artistic form of video than I: go out and make a Saint Vincent “Gangnam Style” parody video! Although, I suppose you would have to actually watch the original to be able to make a parody.

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