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.