2 Oct 2012

Culture Jamming, Gangnam Style

By Damian Spruce

You thought Gangnam Style was just a catchy crossover K-Pop tune? The YouTube sensation is actually a blistering critique of the Korean ruling class and elites the world over. Damian Spruce on PSY's cultural politics

For the past few weeks the world has been gripped by Gangnam Style — a chart-topping pop song and music video from South Korea's PSY. The first global dance hit to come out of East Asia, it has inspired a wave of media frenzy and dance routines on YouTube.

Western responses to the song have tended to marvel at its energy and catchiness, and particularly at the originality and cheeky humour of the video clip. But is it right to characterise it simply as an unusual piece of K-Pop that's managed to cross over to mainstream Western success?

In fact the genius of Gangnam Style carries within it a whole complex of social, political and economic forces that mark a shift in the world's geostrategic environment. And the acute intelligence of PSY's critique of the socioeconomic transformation of Korean society is worth considering and supporting as something deeper than mere pop fluff. While it has been hailed as the first global triumph of K-Pop, the massive music industry coming out of South Korea, in reality the song is the antithesis of it: it deliberately avoids association with the sweet boy bands and romantic love songs so dear to the genre.

The song is deeply political, a disciplined and sustained attack on the ruling class of Seoul. It forensically holds up to examination a series of high status cultural behaviours, dissecting them in public view, at times in the most grotesque of ways. PSY is throwing cultural bombs, leading the charge against the social norms of a new capitalist order.

It is a significant moment not only for the Korean music industry but for global pop. A key event in the development of the world's musical economy — the connection of American and East Asian pop —  has occupied by an autonomous songwriter and producer, not merely a puppet of the industry. PSY holds up a different, more democratic conception of pop music and culture more broadly in opposition to the tyranny of elite tastes.

Can we seriously make such grand claims about a four minute pop video in which the protagonists are dressed in garishly coloured (but stylishly cut) prom tuxedos and hold dance-offs in underground carparks?

First, it is worth remembering that the entertainment industry is a pillar of the US and the world economy, and is anything but trivial. Second, we should remember that South Korea is one of the bastions of pro-US sentiment in East Asia and is one of the most important sites of American power in the region. The 25 million residents of Seoul form the economic powerhouse of the country, and Gangnam is its control centre. As Max Fisher noted in The Atlantic, Gangnam is the home of the country's biggest brands and has $84 billion in wealth or 7 per cent of the nation's GDP in an area of 15 square kilometres. PSY has not chosen a randomly pleasant neighbourhood to target his attack: he is aimed directly at the heart of South Korean capitalism.

In comments on the song PSY has emphasized that he is concerned not only with the phenomenon of Gangnam itself, but the fact that for many young Koreans who are not obscenely wealthy, the neighbourhood is becoming an model on which to live their own lives. It is becoming a machine by which the Korean one per cent tell the rest of the nation how to live. And it is into this machine that he is throwing a spanner.

How does he attack it? First of all by becoming a Gangnam man, dressing up in the trappings of high fashion and parading himself through the sites of privilege: a luxury beach resort, the stables of an exclusive country club, an elite discotheque, doing deals with the captains of industry in a Korean sauna. In reality of course, as a successful musician he is part of all this — but he sits in a strange position in relation to it. At 34, too old to really be a proper pop star, he takes the role of court jester, a position of cultural power which allows him to be so effective at attacking Gangnam.

Gangnam Style is also essentially equestrian style. Themes of horsiness dominate the song, the video and the dance. Horseriding forms the basis around which he constructs all his moves, and also operates as the motif for the dominant settings in the clip: at the stables, inspecting the horses in their stalls; in the dressage arena, performing his style against the background of young Koreans seated on their ponies, all prepared for a gymkhana; and finally on the merry-go-round, in the final, demeaning parody of equestrianism, seated on a glossy ceramic horse as he is whirled about the funfair.

Where does this strange fascination with matters equine come from? Most directly, it probably is a result of the close connection between the ruling elites in South Korea and the East Coast of the US: the scions of Korean dynasties who go to Harvard or Yale come to understand the ways in which cultural distinction can be achieved in the white centres of privilege from Boston to New York and New England. Keeping a horse and going riding has always been an index of status in this milieu. We only need to think of the role of Mitt Romney's wife's horse in the recent Olympics, and subsequently in the US election coverage, to know the power of horse-fancying in the political and social imagination of America.

Once he has established himself as part of this world, he then proceeds to destroy himself. He reveals that his luxurious breach resort is in fact a kids playground, the nightclub in fact a pensioners bus out on a daily excursion. His aggressive, authoritative rhymes, so full of patriarchal power, are being launched at the audience from a toilet seat.

Not only is this critique significant at a national level, however, but in going global it has consequences and lessons for the way in which the great economies of East Asia and the West will interact with each other in the new Pacific Century. It represents a moment where the Empire writes back via the medium of the global pop song.

To properly understand it we might consider a counterfactual: what if the crossover Asian hit had come from one of the true stars of K-Pop, an adolescent boy band or girl group? What if the factories of the East Asian entertainment industry, having produced a model of pop based on the most sickly sweet of American music, then paid back its debt to the US by returning a super-refined version of US pop back to its homeland.

Instead, a rupture in the fabric of the musical field has occurred. PSY, a laughing jester from a producer's nightmare, has emerged to wreak a terrible revenge on the industry that spawned him.

Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

Posted Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 15:54

Great article - I loved reading it, and looking at the clip with your analysis in mind. There is lots to notice and examine - as you point out, all is not as it seems.

Music and music clips have been used throughout history to protest dominant elites. But I never stop feeling disappointed that such clips are littered with stereotypically sexist representations of women (as background dancers ala Robert Palmer, seductresses on a train, accouterments on the arm of Mr Psy). They are part of the story telling (albeit being parodied to contest the objects and activities of elites) and not part of the story tellers. 'Sigh'

Dr Dog
Posted Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 16:15

I had no idea. I just thought it was a web phenomenon like lolcats, not a pop revolution.

I heard a lot of this sort of talk when hip hop went mainstream and what happened was that the centre absorbed and commodified the critique before it could take hold. Psy's next video or whatever will no doubt be in the real sites of power you say he is parodying now.

Once sucked to the centre Psy, like Eminem or Ice Cube before him, will find his voice compromised by his cash. The west needs a constant flow of new product. It can't get it from the middle class - they are the consumers and far too dull to provide a sense of newness required. So it goes to the periphery. Once they have been drawn to the centre their critique, the thing that got them noticed is quickly dulled by the rewards of having been elevated.

This is the real power of the mighty West - to absorb and nullify critique while at the same time making cash for those at the centre.

Posted Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 17:45

Actually, this article is not correct about the subversiveness of Psy's message. Here is a short piece by some Korean writers that explains why:

<strong>Psy: Less a Master of Satire than a Familiar Symbol of Privilege</strong>

<em>By Daham Chong with Se-Woong Koo</em>

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.

@Dr_Tad — <a href="http://left-flank.org/">http://left-flank.org/</a>

Posted Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 13:38

Thanks for the response Tad!

My argument is that it is the fact that he is so Gangnam that makes his attack on Gangnam so devastating. The article you've posted makes my argument stronger by showing just how Gangnam PSY is.

But even if you were to accept that being from Gangnam makes it impossible to attack Korean elites, I'm not sure that an article from two self-confessed Gangnam elitists attacking PSY would be the best way of making that argument.

Posted Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 20:37

Actually, I don't think you've grasped what the Korean writers are saying at all. They argue that there is nothing critical or even ironic in the representations that Psy makes of elite Gangnam culture. It is not because he grew up there but because he is an uncritical part of that elite (who produces music & videos that merely reproduce the inflated lifestyle of elite Gangnam youth that he was always an integral part of) that the authors seek to undermine the interpretation that this is some kind of progressive social critique.

And to mix up their attack on his generic & uninteresting creative oeuvre (or the authors' living circumstances) as "elitism" on the same plane as the *class* elitism of the culture Psy represents and celebrates is just a non sequitur. They're making a political-cultural argument whereas you're just making a cheap shot. I challenge you to find the actual progressive, anti-ruling class critique in his work in the context of their concrete description of the youth culture he represents.

To put it another way: If Psy is so devastating because he is so Gangnam, then Gina Rinehart must be the most subversive, anti-capitalist mining billionaire of all time.

Posted Thursday, October 4, 2012 - 14:43

If Gina Rinehart had conceived of, written, recorded, produced and filmed a song and video of a satire on the high status life of the 1% who dominate Australia’s mining industry and economy more generally, skewering the social mores of the restaurants they lived in and the clubs they frequented, and had that song become a global hit with 359,713,166 views on YouTube in the Asia Pacific region and across the world, raising issues of the illegitimacy of this wealth and the conspicuous consumption culture that accompanies it, then yes I would say that Gina had succeeded in striking a blow against the current ruling class in the Australian minerals boom. And it would have been even more effective as satire because she came directly from the heart of that class. But she has not (her poem-on-a-boulder notwithstanding... although some might say this is a particularly dangerous piece of satire against the mining elites, it does not intentionally take aim against them, and instead leaves the job to Wayne Swan and others to use the absurdly retrocapitalist figure of Gina H to wage war against the overweening power of the mining companies). Psy has. And that’s why its worth analysing him and defending his project.

The question of why he cannot be critical of the milieu in which he grew up is an interesting and complex one. I refer you to paragraph 9 of my piece for my take on it. I based my analysis on a close reading of Psy’s song and video, looking at what he actually sang, what images, behaviours and social phenomena he displayed and how he talked about them, and used them to argue for a particular understanding of his satire, rather than making more general comments about the political meaning of his work on the basis of what car he drives or whether he likes dancing or not.

The observation that Psy’s dance is not particularly stylish or professional, and that it’s a bit embarrassing, actually strengthens the argument that he is poking fun at Gangnam dancing.

These same arguments that you are using have been directed at my analysis of Psy from right-wing libertarians, arguing that he is defending elite culture against arrivistes. Are these the allies that you’re siding with?

Andrew McIntosh
Posted Sunday, October 7, 2012 - 10:34

Firstly, who cares what right-wing libertarians say? About anything? They don't count so there's no point bringing them up. The article by Chong and Woo, and the arguments of "tadtietze", are a lot more convincing than Spruce's, coming as they do - the article at least - from people who know.

Secondly, intention is one thing, interpretation and context others entirely. Spruce sees subversion where I see a rather silly pop music video clip that had more appeal with the sound turned down. Self deprecating humour, sure, but not subversion, and certainly not "a rupture in the fabric of the musical field", except for the too-easily impressed.

Posted Sunday, October 7, 2012 - 12:02

Art is art, it can do its own thing, become a commercial venture, make a statement, make money, make people laugh or philosophise, it can stir trouble. It is very clear that this particular piece is exaggerated and over-the-top. It is being silly and shallow, this is obvious by the use of extreme imagery, bright colour, exaggerated dance and facial movements, showing some disrespect in the sauna and pool for what "should" happen, talking from a toilet in a tux...being unique in these places against the expected behaviours/values.

Thanks for the article, very thought-provoking and I love it that the rightists are so defensive, dismissive and offended...sort of did its job then this song, hey!!!?

Posted Friday, October 12, 2012 - 21:29

Tad and Damian, I think you are both overly concerned with the authenticity or otherwise of Psy's 'satire' here. Any subversive content the clip did or did not have was surely gone by the 300 millionth youtube hit, if not long before. It would be more interesting to think through the politics of the spectacular youtube memisation of pop culture, of which Psy may be the most extreme example.

Posted Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - 07:59


haha Im a Aussie guy who has been living in Gangnam for the last 8 months

Gangnam is such a great place but there is so many gyeonggi people around the station now that we have to hide from them around sinnonhyeon and sinsa until the last buses and trains leave for gyeonggi areas around 11:30, then the seoul seoul(gangnam) people can drink vanilla vodka in splendid gangnam peace until daybreak.