The implications of Gangnam Style

PSY’s wacky song acts as a double-edged sword.

Leah Lancaster

On an otherwise ordinary day at the tail end of summer vacation, my friend dragged me over to her computer. “You have to see this,” she said. She pulled up the music video for a song called “Gangnam Style” on YouTube, and together we watched in a state of confused fascination. Who was this chubby Korean man in a tuxedo riding an invisible horse? How did this video get so many views? What does the phrase “Oppan Gangnam Style” even mean?

At the time, these questions were impossible to process. My brain was too overwhelmed with the pastel blazers, the flying confetti, the random dancing child, the unpredictable scenery — a horse stable? A party bus for senior citizens? A sauna?! It was nonsensical. It was bizarre. It was infectious. It was absolutely amazing.

Since then, the song has had the same effect on millions of others. Now at nearly 400 million views, it has become the most liked video in YouTube history. PSY has subsequently been launched onto the landscape of American pop culture as the world’s most unexpected phenomenon. It doesn’t seem to matter that most people have no idea what he’s talking about. Nevertheless, PSY’s message is an important one to note.

“Oppan” translates literally to “older brother,” but it is often used as a term of affection for a boyfriend or male friend. It can also be used as a first person pronoun, which is how PSY utilizes the term. Gangnam is an extremely wealthy neighborhood in South Korea, populated mostly by young people. It is often likened to Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side of New York City. “Oppan Gangnam Style,” roughly translates to “your man has Gangnam style.”

In the music video, PSY parodies the typical ostentatious Gangnam man. His satirical style starkly contrasts the fluffy content of his K-pop counterparts. This subversive commentary on class and wealth, however, is generally lost on the majority of English-speaking audiences.

The lens through which I view PSY and “Gangnam Style” is a peculiar one. I was born in Seoul, Korea but was adopted and raised by a Caucasian family in the Midwest. I know a little Korean, and occasionally check in on the otherwise separate realm of Korean pop culture, but my knowledge is limited. Part of me is excited that a Korean song is being played on American radio stations, but a bigger part of me is skeptical of the reasons for PSY’s success.

Multitudes of Korean performers have tried to make it in the states — Big Bang, 2NE1, The Wonder Girls, Rain and BoA are just a few examples. All of them have incorporated English into their songs, emulated American styles of dancing and fashion and have even gotten minor roles in American movies. Furthermore, all of them have been molded into what is considered the peak of commercialized Western beauty. Though all of them have become semi-famous within mostly Asian-American communities, none of them have come close to the universal success of PSY.

It seems odd that a stocky, goofy looking man in a wacky outfit would surpass all his toned, model-esque competitors. Then it occurred to me that PSY may fit within the framework of America’s assumptions and stereotypes about Asian men. It doesn’t matter that his comical performance was a caricature of a subculture; for all intents and purposes he is a weird, feminine, dorky, unattractive Asian male. America doesn’t want a muscular, Asian R&B crooner or a plastic surgery-enhanced Asian Barbie mispronouncing her way through a Lady Gaga cover.

America wants another William Hung, and PSY can fulfill that role — albeit with much more flair. While part of his appeal is that he didn’t try to “American-ize” himself, his infamously weird foreign-ness will eternally box him within western pop culture. “Those crazy Asians,” is the general response to the video. They laugh, but whether they are laughing with him or at him is hard to say.

Pop culture icons are always a product of societal values. Though these values are constantly transforming, they are always rife with contradictions and, to a certain degree, prejudice. Pop culture symbolizes and demonstrates what we think but don’t want to say in sometimes the most unconscious ways. In this way, it is important to always challenge these icons and the way they are perceived.

PSY is particularly interesting in that he is the first Asian pop culture icon to appear in recent memory. Since Asian culture in the U.S. is typically confined to Jackie Chan movies, fortune cookies and — the most current addition — Victoria Secret’s “Sexy Little Geisha” lingerie line, PSY’s solidification in pop culture history brings with it a new set of questions regarding America’s willingness to look past the bamboo curtain of Asian stereotypes. Hopefully at some point, audiences can look past his fantastically weird performance and think about what “Oppan Gangnam Style” is really trying to say. Hopefully his fame will lead to genuine respect for him as an artist, instead of an eternal tag as “the Asian.”