Culture & Media

Gangnam Style and Society Context in Pop Culture

I’ll admit that I’m a little behind. In fact, I’m usually not aware of fads until they’ve peaked or been around for a while.  So it’s not surprising that when someone started playing the “Gangnam Style” video before Media Criticism began last week, I was the only one in the room who hadn’t seen it before. As usual, once I became aware of the video, I saw it everywhere.

The Gangnam phenomenon has puzzled many people, mainly Koreans.  Why would a locally well-known, established Korean rapper in his mid-thirties who has been part of the K-pop scene for some time suddenly go viral with millions of fans across the globe in a matter of a few months? Is it the video, the music, or that odd trotting dance? What is the secret to its popularity?

Within the tradition of culturalism that developed in Europe in the mid 19th century, popular culture held a less than admirable status.  Distinctions were drawn between high culture, the “best of what has been said and done,” and popular or mass culture that created class distinctions as well.  High culture, which reflected good taste, also taught correct values and morals, allowing the upper class to lead in society and the working class to be educated.  Obviously, mass culture was considered to be the opposite: appealing to base desires and easy to consume.  Popular culture did not stimulate critical thinking, but created an endless cycle of distraction instead.

However, Raymond Williams’ approach to culturalism is more widely accepted today.  Williams described culture as a structure of feeling; culture reflects the overal spirit of a society.  Culture allows the lived experiences of people to be documented and analyzed.  Therefore popular culture would be most likely to reflect the widely held beliefs and values of a given society, which means what is “popular” is determined by a society.

Then what accounts for the global popularity of Gangnam Style?  The American fan base is mostly attracted by the catchy beat and music and the amusing antics.  But PSY (the name of the Korean rapper, Park Jae-Song) produced the song and video for the local Korean audience, which certainly isn’t entertained by the “silly Asians” doing goofy dances (which is most likely a draw for many American viewers).  While the video was very popular in South Korea as well, it is obvious that Gangnam Style as a text has different meanings in the different cultures.

Rather than simply a goofy music video with a catchy song, PSY’s video is more of a satirical commentary on the materialistic Korean society and the wealthy class.  Gangnam is an affluent, extremely wealthy neighborhood in South Korea, and many elements in PSY’s video, his mannerisms, clothes,  and attitude all jab at the way of life  associated with Gangnam.  There have been several recent financial scandals involving corporate officials, causing Koreans to view financial tycoons as corrupt.  “Gangnam Style” is most likely one of the many pop culture responses to the increasing financial inequality that is emerging in South Korea.  A meaning that is lost to American viewers.  Instead, PSY is just an Asian rapper trying to be a player.


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