Take Two #52: Gangnam Style
By Kyra-lin Hom
All right, enough of this zombie silliness. I get it. The predatory undead aren't for everyone. I mean, we're in serious political times here. This is no time to be joking around – *cough**Jimmy Fallon* *cough*. Excuse me, I had a frog in my... keyboard. Anyway, as I was saying, it's time for me to move on from zombie land onto more appropriate matters. Such as Korean pop music (K-pop) and specifically artist PSY's international hit “Gangnam Style.” That seems thematically proper and timely, right? After all, PSY did say that his song is all about looking classy while being as ridiculous as possible. Well, he used the word 'cheesy,' but that's close enough for me.
What is “Gangnam Style” you ask? At its most basic, it's a silly song from Korean rapper PSY's 6th album poking fun at Seoul's wealthiest district, “Gangnam.” The lyrics praise the women of Gangnam for being well-bred and well-behaved during the day but knowing how to crank up the heat when the moment is right. And like all male stars of any vocation, in his song PSY is just the man for all of these ideal ladies – a joke in and of itself since the nondescript, average-looking PSY regularly includes younger, fitter men in his music videos.
At its less basic, “Gangnam Style” is a global phenomenon. The music video has garnered nearly 500 million views on Youtube, making it the 4th most watched video on the entire site, and the song is topping nearly every major music billboard the world over. How does a silly rap song and video in a language most of its audience can't understand do that?! As PSY would say, that's just the power of “Gangnam Style.”
If you haven't seen the music video, pause here and youtube it immediately. It's a laugh-out-loud funny ride between the lines of sexy, artistic and downright cheesy-ridiculousness. It reminds me of LMFAO's music video “I'm Sexy and I know it” but with more childlike playfulness thrown into the mix. PSY spends most of the video either in downright awe of these beautiful, sexy Gangnam women or doing what has now become an iconic loose-wrist, invisible-horse-riding dance. It's a goofy gallup with a classic hip hop rhythm that's harder than it looks. This dance more than anything else is what's taken the world by storm.
Because these dance steps are now so internationally recognizable, parodies are popping up everywhere from Youtube to the political stage, from Britney Spears on the Ellen DeGeneres Show to the Navy, from “My Little Pony” to the British Prime Minister. “Gangnam Style” has become its own kind of universal peace language, and even the UN Secretary General is quoted calling “Gangnam Style,” a “force for world peace.”
Though currently the most famous, PSY isn't the only K-pop star to be topping global music charts. Not by far. Korea is doing with pop music what it tried to do with Japanese visual-kei rock five or ten years ago: turning it into a perfect, wide-scale product. Visual-kei (like British glam-rock) however, is more about authenticity. Even Japan's 'manufactured' visual-kei bands couldn't touch the international glory days of its originals (though that could partly be my loyalist opinion). Pop music on the other hand is all about the delivery.
Pop music is about appealing to a wide audience on an emotional and sexy level. Everything has to be slick, sharp and well-designed. A model that plays perfectly to Korea's strengths. Big production houses hold regular mass auditions, selecting the best 'whole packages' of the lot and then running them through pop star boot camp with an if-you-can't-hack-it-get-out kind of attitude. It's a bit like our reality TV shows but without the feel good judges and the sappy back stories.
The results are hand-picked performers with exact moves, marine-like discipline and boatloads of talent. And it's working. These might not be the authentic, grassroots, singer-songwriter kind of stars we like to pretend we prefer, but let's face it most pop artists let alone pop songs in America nowadays are just as studio made. This process gifts Korea with a more polished final product. As a consumer, I'm really okay with that. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that Korea debuts its pop stars with music videos not just their audio tracks. That visual oomph is part of the standard package.
The other major Korean artist to have hit the US and the world is the Pussycat Dolls-style girl band Girls Generation. While not my taste, I have to admit they've definitely got something going for them. I tend to prefer those artists with either a bit more of a rock edge (usually with some hip hop flare as per the territory) or an exact opposite candy-cute coating.
My favorite Korean group, actually, is B.A.P. (stands for Best Absolute Perfect). Check out their music video “Warrior.” Seriously, it's amazing. A post-apocalyptic pop-rock music video with high-fashion visual style, wicked choreography, a STOMP-like percussion break and really hot young Asian men – what more could a girl want? And honestly, with Justin Bieber being the sexy, manly man of the young male American music demographic, America has no room to poke fun at its younger-looking Asian brethren any longer.
Hop on Youtube, check out these Korean music videos and then tell me you're still surprised it's a K-pop video that's bridging nations. Can't do it, can you? Oppa Gangnam Style!