Kim: A Transnational “Style”
By Yoo Jung Kim, Staff Columnist
Published on Monday, September 10, 2012
Over the summer, I first heard of the stratospheric popularity of Korean music artist Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” not from my Korean friends or relatives, but from a Taiwanese-American acquaintance who is an avid aficionado of American rap music. He told me that he had stumbled upon the music video through a shout-out on T-Pain’s Twitter feed. By the time that I had clicked on the YouTube link, the official music video had garnered over 30 million views, and in less than two months since its original release, the video exceeded 131 million views.
Notwithstanding inexplicable scenes — such as those featuring elderly men, a sassy strut through a storm of flying debris and an enthusiastic pelvic thrust inside an elevator — the most fascinating aspect about the phenomenal success of “Gangnam Style” is that the lyrics are almost entirely in Korean.
Yet despite the language barrier, the world took notice of Psy’s unconventional music video in an internet storm. Psy has found far more success than previous attempts by unnaturally polished South Korean idols such as Wonder Girls or Rain to enter the American music scene. Numerous major print and online media outlets in the United States such as the Los Angeles Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Billboard, Gawker and The Huffington Post extolled “Gangnam Style” as the unexpected hit of the summer.
But the viral popularity of “Gangnam Style” is no mere accident. While the video may initially pass as inane twaddle, its success demonstrates the changing paradigms of cultural flow and can be understood within the framework of globalization that has allowed for the transmission and exchange of ideas, meanings and values across borders, a cultural process known in academia as “transnationalism.”
First, Psy’s past as a student at Boston University (he never graduated) and the Berklee College of Music made him uniquely suited for the role of fusing together the cultural products unique to Korea and the United States. He took American rap and blended it in Korean with his stylistic self-parody and clownish “body gag” — the vernacular for Korean slapstick comedy — creating a musical export that can be enjoyed throughout the world, regardless of the language barrier.
Furthermore, the availability of websites such as YouTube and its Asian counterparts like Tudou provided the technical platform through which Psy could exhibit his hybrid product to an international audience. While it remains to be seen whether Psy will be able to create another viral hit, this certainly won’t be the last time that a non-Western culture will be able to capture the international spotlight in our globalized world. The growing transnational percolation of various localized cultures will generate interest in their respective countries — countries whose influence and renown has traditionally been overshadowed in the international mainstream.
Finally, familiar themes and criticisms against wealth and excess let international viewers better identify and empathize with the underlying message of the music video. Korean viewers would not have failed to notice the deeper significance behind the lyrics that skewer conspicuous consumption among the members of South Korea’s 1 percent. Fortunately, this message was not entirely lost on the international audience either, as demonstrated by a recent article in The Atlantic that dissects the underlying message for its American readership. The article’s author eruditely points out that in the video, the posh, titular neighborhood of Gangnam is represented by shots of equestrian stables, skyscrapers and indoor tennis courts. These over-the-top visuals of glamour and glitz, as well as Psy’s buffoonish portrayal of an aspiring Gangnam resident, encourage international viewers to see the video as a pastiche of a money-oriented society that strives to adorn itself with Western luxuries. Psy has created a ridicule of the rich that is sure to be appreciated by viewers throughout the world feeling the localized effects of the global economic crunch in a time when the chasm between the wealthy and the poor is growing wider.
Through its blending of culture, technology and narratives, the monstrous success of Psy’s music video has shown the changing paradigm of the transmission of pop culture from unidirectional to transnational. Moreover, cosmopolitan tastemakers are actively dissolving the barriers between disparate cultural elements and stories to make their pieces consumable to a wider audience. All of these factors underscore the humanistic influence of globalization which gives me hope that art and music spread beyond their origins to foster a global, transnational interest in the cultures of others.