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South Korean singer Psy‘s tune ‘Gangnam Style’ has gone viral internationally, with its YouTube video (below) surpassing 70 million hits as of today since its release in mid-July.
This is the greatest hit in K-Pop (Korean Pop) history, and has got many Koreans talking. The scope of discussions vary from simple praise of Psy's (short for Psycho, real name is Park Jae-sang) success, reviews of his marketing and social media strategies, criticism of other mainstream pop singers heavily invested in by their record agencies, to more detailed analysis of Koreans’ deep-seated insecurity about their country.
Numerous international media, including Billboard, ABC and CNN, quickly covered this sensation, which came as a shock to South Koreans, especially entertainment moguls who have failed to make a significance entry into the American market despite spending lots of money and resources over the years.
South Korean net users, although well aware of Psy's great performance and catchy and satirical songs, are also bewildered by this explosive success not only on the local level, but also on the international level.
International viewers meanwhile comment on this YouTube video that although they love the song, they really don't understand what the song's lyrics are about. And they are not the only ones. Even many South Koreans, such as blogger Gl-Meet, admit they dont fully get the lyrics, because they are disjointed and nowhere close to having a storyline – just like many other catchy pop songs.
The basic commentary people agree is as follows: Gangnam is Seoul's poshest neighborhood and in the video Psy acts in a exaggerated Gangnam man's character who brags about how great he is at impressing girls. It can be interpreted as a satire lampooning rich Koreans’ self-importance, as well as materialistic South Korean society.
Many media outlets have not only interpreted the song but gone on further to dissect the lyrics seriously, such as a this detailed, sophisticated, but slightly over-the-top review by the Atlantic. Blogger Gl-Meet wrote [ko]:
사실 언어의 장벽이 해당되지 않는 나도 가사를 온전히 음미하긴 어렵다. 커피를 원샷하는 사나이랑 옷 입어도 야한 여자 등 여러 인간유형이 중구난방으로 등장하고 틈만 나면 sexy lady가 끼어드는데, 여기서 무슨 깊은 의미를 찾겠는가? 애초에 싸이는 단순히 최고로 신나고 재밌는 곡을 만들 생각이었을 것이다. 가사는 입에 착착 붙게, 비트는 구성지고 중독성있게, 뮤직비디오는 최대한 촌스럽고 웃기게 […] 신문 지면에 좀 안다는 아줌마랑 아저씨들이 이걸 분석하면서 강남스타일이 사뭇 진지해졌다. 촌티나는 싸이가 강남 기득권 의식을 풍자했다는 설[…] 참, 꿈보다 해몽이다. 그들 입장에선 혜성처럼 날아든 싸이와 강남의 존재가 너무 압도적이어서 나름의 분석이 필요했을 순 있겠다. 우리야 뭐, ‘싸이’니까 그러려니 하고 받아들이지만.
Even to me, who doesn't have a language barrier, it is hard to fully savor the lyrics. What deeper meaning can I find from a song interrupted so many times by the phrase “sexy lady” and themes such as a guy taking a coffee in one gulp, slutty women, making really random appearances in the lyrics. I believe Psy's motive is to create fun and exciting song– by making lyrics catchy, beats zesty and an addictive and music video that is as hilarious and tacky as possible […] After some well-read gentleman and ladies of the media started ‘dissecting’ it, Gangnam Style has become quite a serious song. There are so many theories, such as Psy is mocking some prestigious classes in the Gangnam area and their sense of superiority, etc […] Well, it is a situation where “the dream's interpretation is better than the dream itself”! [An old Korean saying, similar to the phrase “Fair words please the conversation”] For them, Psy is someone who needs to be analyzed since they have a hard time taking in his meteoric success and strong sense of presence. But for us, we just take it for granted because IT IS ‘PSY’. period.
Blogger Forever 36 commented [ko] on Psy's strategy to accentuate his own character, rather than trying to blend in the idol-dominated Korean music industry, saying it deserved high praise compared to the over-the-top K-Pop world:
아이러니 하게도 싸이의 선전은 대단해 보였단 K-POP 시장이 얼마나 별 볼일 없었던 것인지를 적나라하게 보여준다. 이제까지의 K-POP 아티스트들의 해외 진출은 아이돌이 대부분이었고, 이들은 소수의 매니아들을 생산해냈을 망정 광범위한 지지를 얻어내지는 못했다. 전문 작곡가를 두고, 잘 짜여진 안무에 정형화된 노래들을 소화해내는 한국의 아이돌들은 사실 정말 ‘아티스트'로서의 역량은 심각하게 떨어지는 수준이다. 노래는 그룹내의 몇명 멤버들만 잘하고, 미모를 가지고 있다고 하지만 그건 우리의 기준의 기준일 뿐이다. 해외진출방법도 딱히 이렇다할 것이 없었다. 그저 해외 레코드사에 찾아가서, 홍보를 부탁하고, 안되면 접는 그런 수순이었던 것이다[…] 싸이는 사실 그렇게 뛰어난 아티스트는 아니다. 노래를 잘 부르기를 하나, 랩을 잘 하기를 하나, 그렇다고 잘 생겼기를 했나. 싸이가 다른 뮤지션들보다 월등히 뛰어난 점이라면 바로 이러한 자신의 위치를 확실하게 깨달았다는 것이다. 그래서 사이는 고상한 취향이나 음악적 능력을 드러내지않고, 오히려 스스로 “싸보이는”음악을 한다.
Ironically, Psy's success revealed how small K-Pop markets (but how exaggerated they) were. Till nowadays, most of K-Pop artists who went abroad were idol singers and they only won over small [international] fan groups but failed to garner wide support from the mass public. Frankly speaking, those idol stars’ musical quality as singers are abysmal. They have their own professional song writers in residence and are busy just learning and repeating well-choreographied dance moves and typical songs. Only several members of the idol group sing well. They may be good-looking but just to us. And there were no particular market strategies for international audiences. They just visited foreign recording houses and begged them to promote their songs. When that did not work out, then they just shut it down […] Psy is not actually that outstanding an artist. He is not that good at singing or rapping and he is not even good-looking. What made Psy exceptional among other musicians is that he knew his place [how he is perceived] so well. So he went on a different track: rather than playing all sophisticated with fancy music, he chose to play it kitsch/tacky.
강남스타일이 개임한 것은 뮤직비디오를 만들고, 유투브에 올린 것 외에는 없다. 컨텐츠가 퍼져나가고 패러디되고, 반응들이 쏟아져나오는 과정에는 전혀 관여하지 않았다. 대게 소셜 마케팅을 하는 기업들이 오해하는 부분이 바로 이 부분이다. 철저하게 개입하려 하다가 역효과를 얻게되는 것이다[…]실제로 원더걸스는 텔미열풍 이후 사람들이 잘 따라 출 수 있도록 노래 가사에 춤 동작을 넣어서 안무를 맞춰서 바이럴이 되도록 개입했지만, 인위적인 유통은 참패하고 말았다.
What they [referring to Psy's agency] contributed in Gangnam Style's success is that they have produced the music video and uploaded it to YouTube. That's it. They never intervened in the process of how the content was spread, being parodied and gained numerous reactions. This is where the companies who try to pull off so-called ‘social marketing’ do it all wrong. When you intervene in the process, hoping to control, it backfires. […] In case of the Wonder Girls [Korean idol girl group who tried to break into the United States market but failed], after their song ‘Tell Me’ went viral in Korea, in their next song they designed choreography that was easy to follow, intending it to go viral once again. But this unnatural distribution method failed.
Blogger SOMDA, in a blog post entitled ‘Don't Over-react’, points out [ko] the fact that Koreans can be overly self-conscious over how others view them. The blogger stressed how Koreans have reacted to Psy's international fame demonstrates their low national self-esteem:
가장 최근의 예라면 싸이의 강남스타일이 해외에서 이외로 뜨고있는데에 대한 반응이다. 반응은 두가지로 갈린다. […]먼저 뜨겁게 응호하는 반응에 대해 설명하자면, 이는 한국이란 나라도 이만큼 한다라는 자부심에서 나오는 반응이다. 하지만 어찌보면 슬픈 자부심이다. 서구에게는 동양으로, 같은 동양안에서도 일본에게 한국으로….끓임없이 타자로 위치되었던 한국이 선진국에게 어필했다는 것에 대해 자랑스러워하는 것이다.
The most recent case would be how people reacted to Psy's Gangnam Style video that went viral internationally. And there are major two reactions to it […] First, there are the people so fervently welcoming the news– it shows their nationalistic pride that make them think “hey, we can do this”. But actually this is sad. It comes from the fact that Korea had long been treated as some sort of secondary country, first by the Western world and also by Japan in the Asian region. They now feel proud about the fact they have appealed to (more) developed countries.
[…] 두 번째로 그런 반응을 냉소하는 사람들이다. 이들은 먼저 순진한 승리감에 빠져있는 사람들을 공격하고 싶어한다. 이들은 선진국들에 비해 낮은 한국의 위치를 지나치게 인식한다.[…] 이들은 냉소적인 위치에 있음으로서 실망하고 싶어하지 않아한다. 그러나 이런 이들의 마인드도 역시 서구에 대한 지나친 열등감으로 나오는것으로서, 사실상으로는 응호하는 반응과 이면은 동일하다.[…] 자기정체성에 대해 불안한 사람은 남의 눈을 통해 그를 확인할려고 한다. 이는 한국인이 자국정체성에 가지는 태도와 유사하다.
Secondly, there are people who have turned cynical. They want to attack those people who naively feel so victorious. But they don't realize that they are the one who are overly conscious about our nation's status in comparison with other well-to-do nations. By acting aloof and cynical, they want to protect themselves from dissapointment. But this kind of reaction also derives from low self-esteem and in fact shares the same origin with the over-enthusiam. […] People who feel insecure about themselves try to define themselves with other's eyes. And this applies to how South Koreans see their country.