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Oppan Gangnam Style!



MTV once was short for ‘Music Television’. Although the name is still the same, these days most of the programming consists of showing the daily lives of celebrities nobody knows. Long live the music video. In a time when record labels and pluggers are not enough to get the attention of an audience, the visual accompaniment of the music seems to be of growing importance. Anybody can upload a video on Youtube, possibly reaching a worldwide audience. At the same time people from all over the world can watch music videos coming from places they had never heard of before. Of course, to gain the attention of the Youtube audience a video needs to offer them something different from the millions of hours of video they have at their disposal.

Luckily there is Asia, where popmusic and music videos are taken very seriously. Popmusic is big business in most Asian Countries, where the first letter of the country defines the genre name of the local mainstream pop. Examples are J-pop and C-pop, from respectively Japan and China. In 1992 Seoij Taji and Boys set the tone for K-pop (Korean popmusic). For several years the genre has been very populair on Youtube, with artists suchs as G- Dragon & Top en Hyuna gaining millions of views from all over the world with their extremely well-produced videos. Until now though, Western mainstream media did not seem to be interested.

In spite of its extravagant style, K-pop generally does not diverge from the path of the usual sweet popmusic subject-matter. Ideals or satire is hard to find in the cotton candy videos Korean idols send into the world on a daily basis. Park Sae-Jung, better known as Psy, kills two birds with one stone though with his hit ‘Gangnam Style’. Psy seems to both use popmusic for social commentary as well as introduce K-pop to a Western mainstream audience with this contagious hit and the accompanying video.

At first glance, the music video for ‘Gangnam Style’ seems to be another K-pop explosion of extreme ideas. Psy raps, sings and dances on top of a skyscraper, on a tennis court and on a bus full of partying eldery Koreans. There are explosions, fireworks, group choreographies and of course a signature dance move. When you take a closer look though, underneath the slick packaging Psy is a plump older man who does not look like your average young and pretty K-pop star. And the luxury in the video (which he directed himself) does not seem to be all it is cracked up to be. While dancing in horse stables or in a parking garage, Psy is subtly adressing South-Korea’s urge for material wealth. The Gangnam district in Seoul symbolizes the very rich 1 % of South-Korea where there are five creditcards for every adult person. In his video Psy seems to be living the life of a wealthy Gangnam man, but this life turns out to be nothing but daydreams. This way he criticises the materialism of Gangnam life which seems to be the highest goal for many Koreans, many of which get into big debts to be able to look wealthy. This article in The Atlantic extensively analyzes the subversive message of ‘Gangnam Style’.

Next to its subversive social commentary ‘Gangnam Style’ of course is a catching song, which turned in to a Youtube hit thanks to its bizarre video. Many other K-pop artists went down this road and never reached an audience beyond their Youtube followers. Psy seems to be a different case though. After gaining 100 million views in a month even the mainstream media could not ignore the online phenomenon. Dutch radiostation 3FM at first played the song because of the video, but has now included it in their daily rotation. Other radiostations followed, making ‘Gangnam Style’ enter into waiting rooms and building sites all over the country. If MTV would still show music videos, Psy would probably be dancing on your tv screen at an hourly rate. A Korean song ridiculing a posh neighbourhood in Seoul just reached the top ten of the Dutch music charts, and it probably won’t be the last megahit from an unexpected music industry to make its way to a Western mainstream audience, not in the least thanks to Youtube.

An A to Z of K-Pop, 27 October 2012 @ Theater Kikker