‘Kangnam Style’s Irony is Missed b/c of the Publicity Wave

yeah, it’s pretty hysterical, especially when you get the underlying social critique

I try to avoid K-pop on this website, because I find far too many foreigner websites in Korea focus on the silliest, shallowest elements of what is around us – probably because the language is so hard, and so Korean pop culture is the easiest for us to understand. But I keep getting asked, and it is huge hit, so here’s a sociological overreading:

1. Thank god ‘Kangnam Style’ shows a level of irony, self-awareness, humor, and creativity that K-pop normally lacks. That alone is enough to value it, given how shallow, idiotic, and pre-packaged most Korean pop is. K-pop is wasteland IMO. Try this or this, and see how long you before you cringe from the sheer mawkish inanity of it all. Then read this and this (that second one is a little raw), if you still don’t get it. And to their credit, I find most Koreans will admit that K-pop is fairly embarassing non-art if you push them about it. It should also be noted that traditional Korean music is often superb, rich, and authentic; we listen to it at home.

Anyway, none of these carbon-copy ‘k-bands’ like the Wonder Girls or Girls Generation or whatever would ever get considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I’m from Cleveland, so I thought I’d add that little plug). K-pop slavishly copies from the boy-band/girl-band model that began in the US 20 years ago and crossed-over to Japan. The hair, the synched dance-moves, the gratingly cutesy presentations, the insipid teen love-story lyrics, the spontaneity-crushing over-choreography – it’s awful, corporate faux-art. None of them can play an instrument; they are recruited solely because they’re hot, and the music-machine does the rest. Bleh…

Mix Munedo and the Kardashians in the Korean language, and you get K-pop.  Korea desperately, desperately needs to de-MTV-ize/de-idol-ize its music scene and get some raging, slovenly, wacked-out desperado-rockers like Meatloaf or Janis Joplin who care about music instead of bling. Instead, it’s hideous, so-repetitive-I-can’t-even-tell-the-difference-anymore synth-pop even Duran Duran would be embarrassed to release, all controlled by corporate hacks with no interest in deviation and who are persistently rumored to sexually exploit their young charges. Like almost everything else in the Korean economy, the music industry desperately needs deconcentration and innovation.

(Huge props here must go to Busan Haps magazine for promoting far more authentic Korean rock that goes unfortunately unnoticed. Three cheers for the editor, and my friend, Bobby McGill, who tries hard to make space for Korean hard rock, rap, rockabilly, etc. This is excellent, so make sure you check out the garage bands in clubs where the real Korean musical talent is.)

More generally, K-pop’s blatant rip-off of successful foreign models reflects the depressingly widespread Korean ‘copy-culture,’ where value comes from cloning not originality. This is huge problem throughout Korea – whether in the epidemic of plagiarism that reaches to the highest levels, the downloading piracy that retards the Korean video game industry despite obsessive levels of gaming here, or Samsung’s shameless reverse engineering of the iPhone. As just about any western educator or businessman in Korea can tell you, intellectual property and copyright are all but ignored here. My students pulled so much from the internet at term-paper time, that I’ve stopped giving take-home exams. So for sheer originality and willingness to experiment despite an educational and business culture that openly frowns on that, ‘Kangnam Style’ is a breakthrough.

2. Also important is the social message embedded in the lyrics and imagery which the relentlessly nationalistic Korean media is studiously ignoring in order to focus on its foreign success. This article from the Atlantic captures this very well. It’s an ironic flagship of Korean culture, because the song mocks, appropriately IMO, the shallow, elitist, materialist understanding of success that is so depressingly common in Korea: moving to the chicest place [Kangnam] in Seoul [the center of the universe], with a foreign car [BMWs preferred], a girlfriend who’s had too much plastic surgery [racing girls preferred], and a hot-shot job at a chaebol [Samsung please!]. I am constantly amazed and disturbed at the emphasis on wealth and rank in Korea. Yes, I know it’s a Confucian country, and, yes, I’ve heard the argument that yangban ranking has been transferred to business success in Korea (the chaebol are Korea’s modern aristocrats and all that). But there’s more, I think.

The emphasis on face, prestige, networking, and connections contains a deeply inegalitarian, illiberal personalism that implies sharp insider/outsider distinctions and vicious social ranking. Hierarchy in Korea is punishing, well beyond the Romneyite ‘prosperity gospel’ notion that your economic success somehow reflects your goodness: what kind of car do you drive? where did you go to school? what brand labels do you buy? (no Prada or Louis Vuitton? you didn’t even buy a Chinese knock-off?), what do your parents do? how are your S-curve, V-line, and bust size? How much money do you make? where are you from in Seoul? (wait, you’re not from Seoul? wth is wrong with you?), how light is your skin-tone? (better get that whitening skin cream from the entire floor of the local mall dedicated to cosmetics), did you get your graduate degree in the West? how well do you speak English? could your parents afford an international school, or just a hagwon? (wait, you didn’t even go to hagwon?! so your dad’s like a taxi driver or something?), did you get that double eye-lid as a plastic surgery gift for finishing high school?…

This relentless, elitist social climbing is terribly toxic to Korea’s social health, the subject of Psy’s mockery in the video, probably a big driver behind the high rates of suicide and divorce here, and yet I can continue with even more…

So bad is regional and familial discrimination, that collegiate entrance interviewers are legally barred from asking where applicants are from and what their parents do. (Yes, it’s that bad.) Just about everyone I know in Korea is thrilled to tell me that their ancestors were yangban; so much so, that you’d never know that most Joseon Koreans were illiterate peasants. When they ask me, I tell them my grandparents came from Ireland destitute, and we were lucky to come to the US. People then look at me like, ‘why would you admit that?’ I know colleagues who have been criticized for buying cars bigger or fancier than their ‘seniors,’ because it’s not appropriate. No less than the president of Korea openly ranks the world into ‘players’ and the ‘marginal’ (too bad, you LDCs – we’re not one of you anymore). The notion that Korea must be ‘culturally advanced’ is flogged relentlessly by the foreign ministry (just read the white papers that routinely demand more prestige like it’s some psychic debt the world owes Korea), and the Korean media regularly gins up bogus rankings of this or that to say that Korea is ‘advancing.’

But being ‘advanced’ obviously implies others are backward. This is inegalitarian, not liberal, sorta racist, and bad for democracy. It sends disturbing signals about those are not as ‘culturally advanced’ or prestigious. It is arriviste and suggests contempt for those ‘below,’ i.e., those who make less money than you, don’t live in Seoul, didn’t go to a SKY school, have dark skin, or come from an LDC. It’s why Korean business men get released from jail despite their shenanigans. It’s why ‘lookism’ is endemic in the Korean workplace. One thing I like so much about ‘Kangnam Style’ is its modesty and self-effacement, characteristics hyper-nationalistic, prestige-obsessed Korea needs a lot more.

3. Unfortunately, none of this subversive message gets much play by the Korea media. Instead, the meme has been that the song’s global break-out vindicates Korea’s cultural awesomeness. No less than the Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s paper of record, was sure to tell us “on Tuesday Psy was seen drinking whiskey with Leonardo DiCaprio, Gerard Butler and Paris Hilton in the VIP room of a club in New York, and that the club went wild when the DJ recognized him and played his song.” Yep, drinking top-shelf whiskey with the white glitterati is what success is all about! That’s about the last thing I want my students to read. Did it occur to the Chosun Ilbo that exactly that type of shallow status-chasing is a point of mockery in ‘Kangnam Style’? But who cares, right? He’s a famous Korean, so let’s strut it…

This was entirely predictable, as the over-the-top, populist Korean media tends to read every Korean success as evidence of world’s unslakeable interest in Korea and proof of Korean amazingness. So the whole interpretation, once again, fits the ‘we’re culturally advanced, and foreigners love us’ trope. The Korea Times even admitted it: “Few Koreans will want to make little of or speak ill of the global sensation Psy has touched off.” Yes, that’s right; don’t think about what the message might be, about the obsession with wealth and status, and how that might further undercut equality in this already chaebol-dominated democracy. No, let’s just instrumentalize yet another success story (Yuna Kim, Shin-soo Choo, all those golfers), or any story, no matter how macabre, for the vanity project of Korean nationalism.

So if you want to know why disputes over tiny, uninhabited rocks touch off such a storm that the Korea Times predicted a samurai invasion of Korea (no joke – read the link; and yes, the Korean media is that inflammatory and unprofessional), then here you go: Korea is so nationalist, it would make Fox News blush (well maybe not Hannity).

So three cheers for Psy’s modesty and honesty about life in Korea. We need a lot more of that.

38 thoughts on “‘Kangnam Style’s Irony is Missed b/c of the Publicity Wave

  1. I’m only going to say this once, Prof. Kelly:

    – Say what you will about Kim Kardashian, but she is pretty hot;

    – Duran Duran produced some pretty good music.”Rio”? “Hungry Like the Wolf”? Come on!


    • Agreed on both. I am a product of the 80s enough that I still listen to Duran Duran (please don’t repeat that), so I was trying to use them as a benchmark of quality, you see 🙂

      I hope we get a chance to meet someday. I enjoy your blog very much. Bob


    • Hmmm. I agree with the other posters with your use of the word “Hyper-faggy” being inappropriate, and I also call you out on your hypocrisy on it as well. The Korean Music Industry is bad because it makes women who do not look like societies standard feel bad about themselves – BUT men who do not follow societies standard of how men are supposed to look are “Hyper-Faggy”.


      • All good. I was directing that at that writer and certainly appreciated the warning on your blog.

        Your blog I agree with, and I do enjoy the looks on peoples faces when I explain what Gangnam Style is actually about. I think though, the Korean Media does not wish to recognise that PSY could now sing even more truths in a language the world can better understand. They are probably waiting for his first Schoolboy Records album with far more trepidation and anticipation. Maybe they are just hoping that his patriotism will prevent him from speaking about Korea with anything but positive adjectives.


  2. Yeah, great read. However, I think the idea that “Kangnam Style” is somehow subversive or ironic is wildly overstated. I haven’t read or heard anything that has convinced me that “Gangnam Style” is anything more than just a grand piece of quirk, including the Atlantic article you hyper-linked. To me, it does nail a genuine degree of fun that is missing in the tragedy soaked, uber-earnest (though thoroughly packaged) music industry. But that’s it, it’s cool and weird and funny, and little else.


    • Ok. I may be overreading it. But it’s worth noting that the Korean media started this trend by reading so much into it. Like you say, it’s just a song, but the local media has ballooned it into a ‘see, the world loves Korea!’ feeding frenzy. This interests me more than the actual song, and that’s what I tried to talk about. The hyperbolic reaction tells us more than the song itself ever would.


  3. Yesterday I read an op-ed piece written by the freakin Korean ambassador to Peru hyping the Korean wave – I think you nailed it – they are missing the point almost entirely because they can’
    t get past getting a little recognition and that ‘look at us’ notion to realize that Psy’s success is based on an abberation…..
    You and the Metropolitician have so succinctly captured my thoughts and articulated them into words – you in this article and the Metropolitician when he talks about his experience in the convenience store with the racist punk kid who picks a fight….
    I’m grateful for the opportunity to read stuff like this, and I don’t agree that you’re overreading anything. Spot on, I say. Sank you velly gamsah!


    • In all fairness, there is a Korea wave happening in Peru that started about a year or so ago that has nothing to do with Psy’s recent song. In South America, Kpop is most popular in Peru, Brazil, and Chile. A couple of Kpop stars have had recent successful concerts in Peru and they have been picking Peru and Brazil as places to hold concerts so the ambassador is probably also thinking of that (Mind you that I haven’t read what he said but I’m just guessing). I think that a lot of Westerners are reading too much into Psy’s song. In interviews about the song, Psy just said that he wanted to make a fun summer song with crazy situations about Gangnam where women are one way at night and go wild at night. Can you read more into it if you wanted to? Yes. Should you? Maybe not.

      As a Westerner who has lived in Korea awhile, I really like Kpop. I find it refreshing to not have to listen to lyrics about sex and drugs all the time which is common in Western music. I once tried to find a couple of popular Western songs for my kids to sing for their parents and the majority of them had lyrics that were about sex or drugs or had bad words in them. I also love the fun dances in Kpop songs.


      • I have no idea if K-pop is popular in LA, but if the Korean media treatment of that follows to form, a general interest in it – a few sold out concerts – will be wildly over-exaggerated as a ‘wave’ ‘taking LA by storm,’ with no data but those few concerts to support such irresponsible generalizations.

        And that is the problem: the relentless grandstanding and instrumentalization of anything Korean with global exposure for nationalist assertion. It surprises me not at all that ‘Gangnam Style’ was manipulated in this way by the Korean media immediately, nor that the ROKG shamelessly tried to exploit its popularity for Korean nationalist goals, in this case Dokdo: https://twitter.com/sujeanpark/status/250487250834571266.

        If that’s overreading it, it’s only because the Korean media and government start us down this path EVERY time something Korean becomes a hit in the world.

        After years of being subtly pressured to parrot back this line (‘you work here, so you must believe Dokdo is uri nara, right, right?’), I’ve just had it. Sorry.


  4. As usual, an excellent post, Robert. I will try to meet up with you on my next trip to Busan. There is a great deal written on this song already, some of it just “how sick I am of it” or “how hawt the girls are,” but some is intelligent commentary (I do like the homage videos with girls dancing. I’m human). I gave an article from TIME to my students yesterday making the argument that the song is gentle social satire (http://business.time.com/2012/09/24/the-wholesome-hidden-message-of-gangnam-style/) and my students were divided– some felt the author was overthinking a silly song simply meant to be enjoyed (“do we analyze ‘everyday I’m shuffling, shuffling’?”), but others did see the satirical overtones on crass materialism. Though I think many of them likely see the video at best as making fun of those Gangnam snobs and not on their own aspirations to have a BMW and giant apartment.

    At worst, many Koreans do seem to miss the point entirely, believing that it’s simply an awesome example of K-Pop and how it’s taking over the pop world, and how it’s better than anything the Beatles made, etc. Last night I walked into the room where my wife was watching television, and in five minutes saw two commercials with the song selling smartphones, apparently ignorant of the song’s mocking of such obsessions with trendy bling.

    I suppose I myself have mixed feelings. It’s only to be expected that the Napoleon complex of the country would come out (“We’re successful and cultured and world-leaders, right guys? Right? Wait for me, guys!”), and that the horrendous local media would do their usual worst with it after the chest-thumping over Kim Yuna was starting to wear out its usefulness.

    On the other hand, Robert, I agree that there is good underground and alternative music in Korea. I’ve just never heard it in some eight years in the country. To me the traditional music sounds like sick cats with kazoos in their mouths, and all I’ve heard is the childish K-Pop bands with their 14-year-old stripper moves and the drearily manufactured names and lyrics (“One! Two! I wanna dance with YOU!”) Where is the Korean Pink Floyd, the U2, the Paul Simon? I’m told that there were the beginnings of such music in the 70s and that they were crushed by the then somewhat-less-than-democratic government for being too politically controntational, only to be replaced by this sub-Solid-Gold pap. (I think Duran Duran is highly underrated for their keyboard playing and arrangements.) So if there’s the tiniest spark of creativity in what Psy does I encourage it.


    • ‘sub-Solid Gold’ – hah. That’s fun.

      Maybe we’re all over-reading it. My own inclination was to avoid this whole thing and keep writing dreary crap about F/X rates or whatever that no one reads, but I kept get asked about this. And it turns out this post has gotten huge traffic: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/27/gangnan-style-ctd.html. So WTO law bores ’em to tears, but hot girls in tight outfits brings out the readers. Let that be a lesson to me to include the word ‘sex’ in all my post titles in the future.

      Also, it was really the Kr government and media – of course – that had to make the song more than just a song. Hence the flirtation with pushing Psy to write a ‘Dokdo Style’ song also. Yup, EVERYTHING’s gotta be politicized. But that’s what happens, so here we are debating the politics of celebrity and music machine faux-art. Ugh. I’ve lost all self-respect.

      Finally, please take a look at what ‘Len’ said below in the comments. I’d be curious for your response too.

      Definitely get in touch with me when you come down.


  5. I was going to just pass by, but I decided to leave a comment on your very interesting article from the perspective of a Korean living in the US.

    While I agree with most of the observations you made, I do have to wonder just who these people are that told you their ancestors were yangban. In my 21 years of life in Korea (I moved to the US when I was 21, and I am now 35.), I knew two people of my age who bragged about their ancestry. They were both direct descendants of well known historical figures (Jung Mong Joo and Sim Jae Hak), so I think that wasn’t so unusual. Other than those two, I’ve never had any friends who even talked about their ancestry beyond grand-parents. I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Seoul, so maybe that has something to do with it, but I find your statement that just about everyone you know brags about their ancestry very difficult to believe.

    As illiberal as many aspects of Korean culture may be, I believe that one thing that the turbulent early 20th century did to Korea was to break the tie with the social orders of Joseon. It is certainly very difficult for any old aristocratic family to have maintained their wealth through the colonialism and the war, which goes a long way to erase their prestige. Yes, there are still some old farts out there that like to talk about family trees and such, (old men like the ones playing chess in Gangnam-style video) but most young-ish people don’t really care. We have not much left of the aristocratic culture of Joseon, the recent effort to revive it for tourists notwithstanding. So while it may fit the narrative of a typical Asian culture viewed by a westerner, I have to disagree that the pre-modern social order still plays a role in modern Korean society.

    Beyond that, I am a bit curious about the mentality of expatriates who hold disdain for much of the culture that surrounds them, like some of the European colleagues of mine who love to complain about every crass aspects of American culture, even if their observations are factually correct. In my years in the US I have come to realize that many of those negatives are actually closely related to the things that make the American society great. I think the same can be said about the ultra-competitive, class-conscious nature of Koreans, as grotesque as they may seem even to Koreans. I agree the things you mentioned are not good for mental health, but I feel that they are also very closely related to the most positive aspect of the modern Korean society, which is its dynamism.


    • Thanks for reading my stuff, and thanks for this detailed response/critique. I almost never get this quality response, so I am very flattered. Thank you for the effort.

      On the family tree, I can only tell you what I get exposed to. I have had many, many Koreans, both in personal and professional life, profess to me that they are related by descent to yangban, aristocrats, royalty, and other elites. And I find that the family tree and line is valued; I hear about that too. Perhaps younger Koreans don’t think that way; I guess I am not so young anymore :(. But that is what I hear a lot. The larger point of course is the coupling of this to notions of social rank and bloodline ‘maintenance’ which I find inegalitarian and illiberal.

      More generally, I would strongly disagree that Joseon/pre-modern Korea doesn’t play a role here. Quit the opposite in fact. Koreans strike me as intensely interested in their past, to the extent they’ll gin up fakeries like the Korean state goes back 5000 years (a favorite claim of Arirang TV), or that the minjeok has been ‘pure’ for millennia (only just recently pulled from the school textbooks). In fact, so ideological and contentious has the academic study of Korean history become, that a lot of the best work is done outside Korean now in less politicized environments (a point I make here: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital-Library/Special-Feature/Detail?lng=en&id=150816&contextid774=150816&contextid775=150815&tabid=1453260368). Korean TV and film is filled with endless Joseon Dynasty soaps, dramas, action movies. When Koreans marry, they frequently buy expensive hanboks and roll out an elaborate traditional ceremony (I know; I’ve done it). Most Korean universities have entire departments devoted to the study of Korean history and culture, and there are dozens and dozens of academic journals on Korean studies that investigate astonishing levels of minutiae from Korea’s past. (We get a lot of this stuff at my university, so I get exposed to it a lot.) The government has bent over backward to promote ‘Korean studies’ as a distinct academic discipline. I could go on…

      As for ‘disdain,’ I am disappointed to hear that. My critiques were not meant as glib, childish point-scoring but real concerns about the way Korea is evolving. This come from being vested here, not disdain or contempt, and from studying this stuff seriously as academic. If I didn’t like Korea, I’d leave. But I live here, pay taxes, got married, etc. So I say these things, because I want Korea to be a nicer place. I would like my female students to stop worrying about getting plastic surgery. I would like Korea’s sky-high suicide rate to come down. I would like Koreans to know there is life after the end-all-be-all college entrance exam which makes almost every Korean teenager depressed and miserable for years. I would like Korea and Japan to get along, and I desperately wish the Korean media would stop pouring fuel on those flames at every turn. If outsiders help Korea see these things better, then that is progress not carping.

      And finally, I don’t think classism and elitism make Korea dynamic. Instead, I think it’s because Korea, like Russia in the late 19th century, is going through a multiple social transformations simultaneously. I tried to write that up here: http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/2011/12/23/korean-natl-identity-2-4-simultaneous-sociological-transformations/.

      Thanks again for reading.


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  9. hello….
    can you give me a synopsis on http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/08/gangnam-style-dissected-the-subversive-message-within-south-koreas-music-video-sensation/261462/ THIS ARTICLE?

    i also need 10 critical thinking questions, that wont be yes or no…and not just questions that have answers that can be found in the article…something like : ” Do you think there are gender and sexual politics present in the music video of Gangnam Style?”

    thaaanks alot!!!!


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