The first time I saw the viral "Gangnam Style" music video -- even though I don't speak a word of Korean -- something about it absolutely tickled me. To non-Korean audiences, the video, which has become a viral hit on sites like Youtube, seems like a nonsensical mixture of images, some of strange people dancing, horses, bathrooms, pretty girls doing yoga, against catchy techno beats and the refrain "Oppa Gangnam Style!" Korean rapper PSY, an ordinary-looking man in his 30s, dances impishly in different situations that, at first glance, make little sense to the casual viewer.
Here is the original video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0
Many Americans became familiar with Gangnam Style through Saturday Night Live when the show did performed a playful nod to the song and PSY's rapid rise to international fame with the sketch "Lids." But the song's meaning was elided in the sketch, as Kenan Thompson's character states: "That was awesome ... I don't know why, but it was awesome, man!" The SNL sketch can be seen here:
What is missing from the sketch's explanation is that PSY (whose name is Park Jaesang) draws from American notions of satire in Gangnam Style, which is a mocking indictment of wealthy Gangnam neighborhood, Korea's material inequalities, and the wide gap between the nation's rich and poor. Max Fisher's article in The Atlantic lays out PSY's rise to success, motivations, and the video's satirical elements in the following article:
As Fisher explains, while K-Pop (Korean popular music) has generally failed to cross over into American markets (and not for lack of trying) PSY's international popularity comes as a surprise to many -- he is not young or particularly good looking, although the song is undeniably catchy. However, what I find most interesting about PSY's rise to fame is how he has used satire to tap into conflicts emerging in two different countries with similar economic woes. What Korean and U.S. critics alike are perhaps not accounting for is the context in which satirical political messages become particularly salient and appealing.
The U.S., as well as Korea, is experiencing extreme disparities between rich and poor economic classes, and Americans have become keenly aware of the excesses and preoccupations of wealth since our economy has declined over the last decade. Since PSY spent time studying in the U.S. and became familiar with satirical discourses and practices, he was able to export these sensibilities and apply them to Korean audiences, since Korea had not previously had a strong history of satire. The result is that PSY has unearthed a powerful mode of discourse capable of addressing global challenges and reaching global audiences.
While I am particularly interested in satire's appeal during times of economic, social, and political strife, I am also struck by how PSY's satire and humor is visible and wildly appealing even to those who do not immediately understand his particular message. Upon a more careful and researched examination of his video, Fisher writes:
"Psy hits all the symbols of Gangnam opulence, but each turns out to be something much more modest, as if suggesting that Gangnam-style wealth is not as fabulous as it might seem. We think he's at a beach in the opening shot, but it turns out to be a sandy playground. He visits a sauna not with big-shot businessmen but with mobsters, Kim points out, and dances not in a nightclub but on a bus of middle-aged tourists. He meets his love interest in the subway. Kim thinks that Psy's strut though a parking garage, two models at his side as trash and snow fly at them, is meant as a nod to the common rap-video trope of the star walking down a red carpet covered in confetti."
What translates seems to be PSY's spoofing of the ridiculous excesses of materialism. I am thinking particularly of his horse-riding dance that PSY performs throughout his video, but notably in a luxurious horse stables -- at a time when presidential candidate Mitt Romney has received unwanted attention for his wealth and owning a horse that competes in Olympic Dressage (horse dancing). In an economic period in which many children find higher education out of reach, homes are being foreclosed, and 50 million Americans cannot afford healthcare, mocking a rich person riding a horse suddenly seems like an outlet for frustrations over massive inequality issues.
The "viral" nature of these ideas is what makes them to interesting. Digital media has enabled two very different cultures, societies, and political systems to experience and appreciate the same satire in complimentary ways at the same time. PSY has inadvertantly expressed a sentiment and discourse more popular than he could have realized.