At this point, we have all seen the dance and even tried to learn it. We have stumbled over trying to learn the Korean verses, but really sing it with enthusiasm at: “Hey, Sexy Lady. Oppa Gangnam Style,” (or at least I do). We heard remixes and other celebrities learn Psy’s horse-straddled-type dance. It’s quirky. It’s awkward. It’s a more colourful, far less musically-challenged version of what Americans remember as a William Hung-esque performer. We like it because it has a good beat, simple dance moves….and it’s weird.
But my question: Is Psy’s “Gangnam Style” typical of Korean culture, or is it a brilliant business move to make it in the West? Well, it’s a bit of both.
I did a bit of investigating for this one. Sure, I could have Googled, but that’s no fun. Instead I sent out a questionnaire to a native Korean (This being vital.), a K-Pop expert (Her expertise on the genre is incredible. And no, she is not Korean, but I am convinced her heart is.), and my Korean Foreign Correspondent (or a Seoul study-abroad-er who is many great things, but Korean isn’t one of them). I like to think my team of respondents is a reliable group of young 20-somethings who have all been in recent and continual contact with the Korean culture. Their answers weren’t contradictory, but instead they helped bolster each others claims (unknowingly, of course).
While there is much debate about K-Pop’s definition, there seems to be two types of K-Pop: 1) the tall, handsome, young sexy idols of a boy band 2) the singers who use direct lyrics as a means to critique Korean society. Some may argue Psy belongs to type 1, but I’m here to say he is a type 2. (Sorry, ladies.)
It may be obvious that Psy’s “Gangnam Style” is poking fun at a certain high-class Seoul neighbourhood. With its sarcastic, humorous and catchy manner, it was destined to pick up, but even Psy couldn’t have imagined its instant global success. But the boy band-type K-Pop i.e. Super Junior, UKISS, etc wouldn’t dare poke fun at Korean society. That wouldn’t be…sexy.
Looking at Psy’s business past in Korea, I’d like to think him as the Simon Cowell of Korea. He rose to stardom in 2001 when his song became the theme to Korea vs. Japan World Cup. He recently judged on a Korean Idol-type programme and is most known amongst adult listeners for his explicit lyrics. Basically, he is a savvy businessman who knows how to pitch and sell himself as well as songs.
K-Pop as a whole has been slowly integrating English into their song lyrics. This obviously only helps the tune’s success and Psy’s career. In most cases, this is US listeners’ first time encounter with Korean culture and if Scooter Braun can help it, this won’t be the last. The man that launched Justin Bieber’s career has just signed Psy to his music label. While Psy isn’t the chiseled-bodied, symmetrical-faced beauty that is the K-Pop boy band, he is representing a version of K-Pop globally. He may not be the correct depiction of the genre; but for most US pop radio station listeners, it will be the only encounter with K-Pop…ever.
Brief Korean Language Lesson: Oppa in the lines “Hey sexy lady. Oppa Gangnam Style” means big brother. Girls call all older guys oppa. The girl equivalent is nunna.