Deconstructing Gangnam Style

gangnam strut

“Gangnam Style” confronts the Korean media’s fixation with image.  Any media is image-centric, but it’s really reinforced within the kpop world.  I have to stop here and say I’m not really familiar with kpop; the only Korean media about which I know anything is kdramas.  But my excessive kdrama watching has lent me some insight into how the kpop world works (or at least how the kdrama world thinks the kpop world works, and given that many kpop stars act in dramas, I’ll bet it’s at least somewhat accurate).

shut up flower boy band

One of the central tensions in Shut Up Flower Boy Band is between the demands of their record label, and being in the band for the love of the music and the friendship.

There’s a term, “visual pop star,” or “visual band,” that’s used in dramas such as Greatest Love and Shut Up Flower Boy Band.  It means a pop star/band whose focus isn’t as much on actual music (or musical talent) as the image of the band.  In Flower Boy Band, the boys chafe at being forced into a “visual” model (though they sort of asked for it, given that they named their band “Eye Candy”).  Their label wants them to go on variety shows, record singles with pop artists, and let professional songwriters compose their album.  In You’re Beautiful, lead character Hwang Tae Kyung struggles with the same thing.  He wants to be taken seriously as a musician, but the music industry machine keeps trying to force him into the visual model.

Visual artists are a big (though not the only) part of kpop culture, and that’s exactly what Psy is spoofing.  His video is nonstop mockery (if gentle, even somewhat fond mockery) of his society’s and his profession’s obsession with the imagery and ideals presented by the media.  The ridiculous images he uses to display that are what helped make the “Gangnam Style” video so popular, to the befuddlement of the desperate-to-break-into-America Korean music corporation.

Even if we don’t know or understand the details of what’s going on in “Gangam,” we get some level of the parody.  We also have music videos full of flashy and sometimes vapid imagery.  That’s what helps continue Psy’s popularity.  I doubt the song would have made it to the radio, or that the video would have made it to a billion views, if it were just another silly thing unearthed by the Internet.

Clearly it’s resonating with us, and I’ve got quite an example to prove it.  “Gangam” parodies are a dime a dozen, but there’s one that stands out: “Eton Style.”  Of the many takes or remakes of the song that I’ve seen, “Eton Style” is the one that most resonates with the message/intent of the original. Eschewing Psy’s lyrics in favor of writing their own, a group of boys from the elite British boarding school send-up their own lifestyle, doing so in their own painfully posh public school accents.

It’s perfect, because many of the (all male) students at Eton are in situations comparable to the second-generation chaebols populating Gangnam.  The “Eton Style” song parodies one of its own country’s bastions of wealth and society.  Its verses enumerate the luxuries available to the boys (drinking expensive champagne like it’s water), and reference the school uniforms that they all must wear to preserve and perpetuate a certain image: “No, I don’t know why we all wear these clothes / But baby, baby, just come on and watch me row.”

What really distinguishes “Eton Style” is that it might be just as, if not more, self-aware than “Gangnam Style.”  The lyrics expose the Eton boys’ insecurities: “We may be awkward, frustrated, lonely, and insecure … We don’t like conflict with other people … We’re not too social, can’t talk to women / Although we try … We’re just too shy / If you approach us then we’ll just break down and cry.”

“Gangam Style” is about revealing and mocking the Gangnam culture, and it’s done by someone groomed within it.  But its lyrics never break caricature.  In “Eton Style” the boys are more direct, revealing in clear words, rather than just parody, that neither they nor their fancy Eton lives are perfect.  Like its predecessor, “Eton Style” is more than just a lip-sync or a parody (of a parody, and doesn’t that meta just make your head hurt?).  It’s telling that “Eton Style” was made months after the original; “Gangnam” persists because there are deeper levels to it, ones with which others are still interacting and to which they’re beginning to add.

Here at With An Accent, whether we like the song/video, are sick of it, or always thought it was just some gimmicky YouTube bait that needs to go away now, we have to be grateful to Psy and “Gangnam Style” for one thing in particular.  In the words of a close friend (and PhD student in communication) of mine, it disproves, “the one-way ‘West to the Rest’ assumption of cultural dissemination.”

In other words, it proves that not all pop culture comes from Hollywood, or even from Western culture.  To return to the accolades I listed at the beginning: A South Korean video now holds the all-time YouTube hits record, the first to reach a billion views.  When covered on primetime American television, the song’s lyrics were kept intact in Korean, rather than being translated.  That’s especially impressive considering that one of the primary goals of Glee is to churn out high-selling singles.

“Gangnam” has already shown that Americans are receptive to media from other cultures.  Left at that, it’s a fantastic legacy.  But it could be so much more: “Gangnam” could open the doors for greater recognition of international media throughout our country, not as alternatives to our own, but as normal parts of our media consumption here in America.  That would be incredible, and thanks to “Gangnam,” we just might be on that track.

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