By students, for students.

Gangnam Style or gang mentality?

In Marketing on October 5, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Strange enough to be compelling, familiar enough to hold mainstream appeal, Psy has achieved the incredible, but does living in a “Gangnam world” have a dark side?

Guinness has crowned the music video for the Korean rapper’s “Gangnam Style” the most “liked” Youtube video of all time. His song remains at number one on the iTunes worldwide chart with the single topping charts in 30 countries around the world. Notably, Psy’s offering has found its way to the top of the UK chart and was prevented from achieving the feat stateside by Maroon 5.

At the time of writing, the video has almost 360 million views (many more counting the unofficial versions offered on different Youtube channels), but this will increase in the time taken to read this article.

The star is taken aback by his sudden international fame, morning show invitations and contracts with Justin Bieber’s manager and Universal Records. He has compared his disbelief to feeling as if he was the subject of a Truman Show style conspiracy.

Commentators share his surprise. Disparate explanations have been offered as to where in the 4 minute 13 second barrage of K pop, Korean celebrities, outlandish fashion and bizarre dance moves the magic ingredient can be divined.

Marketers view the success of “Gangnam Style” through the lens of the growing scholarship on viral campaigns. Analyses focus on the high-production levels, the colour and fast-paced action of self-parodying K-Pop and an appeal that transcends language.

Psy is perceptive in commenting, “I believe my success sprouted from laughter that people find it funny and enjoy it.” The humour in his comical dancing and odd locations (moving between a toilet, lift and hot tub) appears to be of the inoffensive, accessible and immediate stuff which internet trends are made of.

“Gangnam Style” was, to borrow the Guardian’s phrase, “born to spawn”.

Adding to the phenomenon’s force, viral elements of the video and song are not restricted to the internet. The dance (the main motif of which is underlined in the video by shots of stables) has escaped the trappings of Youtube to be performed by Korean presidential candidates, Britney Spears and flash-mobs.

“Gangnam Style” has become shorthand for a dance trend which has come full circle. Beginning on Youtube abnd spawning imitators who have also received minor fame on the video-sharing site. The video’s memetic reproduction in fan videos has been encouraged by a very conscious lack of copyright protection.

Another perspective has concentrated on the song’s potential anti-capitalist spirit. Culture columnists have rushed to herald the popularity of “Gangnam Style” as proof of a global antipathy against the wealthy. This argument proceeds from the song’s titular reference to a wealthy district of Seoul, notable for boutiques, clubs and plastic surgery clinics.

In an Associated Press article, Kim Zakka, a Seoul-based music critic wrote, “Gangnam residents are South Korea’s upper class, but South Koreans view them as self interested with no sense of noblesse oblige.”

This background is undeniably part of the songs domestic appeal, but South Koreans only account for 4% of the videos overall views. The US, UK and Canada represent Psy’s biggest audiences.

It is here that the “social conscience” argument falls apart. For the 47% of the song’s listenership in the United States, the 7% in Britain and the 6.8% in Canada, the social message of the song is lost and, dislocated from a local understanding of Seoul’s pecking order, it appears to celebrate ostentacious consumerism in the tradition of Western pop and rap music.

Like pop sensations Katy Perry and One Direction, “Gangnam Style” uses sex to sell (most obviously in beauties performing rooftop yoga). Psy seeks to find his dream girl in the song’s narrative. Differentiating “Gangnam Style” from pop at large, however, is that Psy takes central stage not as a sex symbol but as a figure of fun, clearly complicit in the humour innate in a 34 year old man in a blue tuxedo jacket mincing with supermodels.

This speaks to the British tradition of diffusing the taboo surrounding sex with laughter, as seen everywhere from 007 quipping as he beds 3 women in a single film to the puns in page 3 of The Sun.

It isn’t all fun and games, however. Another factor behind the video’s success with an English speaking audience might be its confirmation of racial prejudice. It has become common currency on internet forums to swap examples of oddities turned up by Asian cultures, most prominently Japan which has historically been isolated in its cultural developments. In mainstream media, Takeshi’s Castle represents a popular view of Japanese entertainment. Psy’s colourful clowning might do Korea’s reptuation more harm than good.

What do you think? Is the success of “Gangnam Style” attributable to originality or Orientalism?
Comment Below.


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