What’s so great about Gangnam Style?

The most popular YouTube video ever is more than just a weird-looking Korean with a funny dance. In South Korea, Gangnam Style went from being poisonous satire to becoming a global pop hit that the locals are proud of.

A slightly chubby and pompous Korean man jumping around in a bling-bling universe dancing an absurd and not terribly sexy dance.

By now, most of us have encountered the YouTube hit ‘Gangnam Style’, which has now become the most popular YouTube video of all time.

But from an academic perspective, what is it that makes the video so funny?

“In the West I believe it’s surprising and funny because it breaks with our cultural conventions – a bit like Bollywood movies did a few years ago,” says music researcher Steen Kaargaard Nielsen, of the Department of Aesthetics and Communication at Aarhus University.

K-pop is an extremely sexualised aesthetic universe, and that’s one of the things that Psy is poking fun at in the video.

Jacob Ki Nielsen

The video shows a pop culture that we’re familiar with, but which has an added layer of something unfamiliar.

According to Nielsen, the lead singer Psy is acting completely differently to how a typical Western pop singer would – for example when Psy is dancing with a slender guy in a yellow satin suit.

Special blend of East and West

PhD student Jacob Ki Nielsen of Copenhagen University specialises in South Korean culture. He agrees that the image of Western pop culture portrayed in the video helps turn it into a good, global joke.

“It’s a form of hybrid between the West and Asia – a mirror image in which you can see yourself and engage yourself in it physically by dancing along with it.”

Gangnam Style is a big hit in many countries, but not in Japan.

According to South Korea expert Jacob Ki Nielsen, this could be because the Japanese regard it as a provincial form of humour.

Jacob Ki Nielsen says that initially the video was a local hit in South Korea and that it turned into a hit in the West when an American rapper by the name of T-Pain shared it with his celebrity friends, who subsequently shared it with their followers on Twitter.

He reckons that the South Koreans, just like the Westerners, laughed at the dance and the silly universe portrayed in the video.

But in South Korea the video has an added dimension: it’s a satire poking fun at the so-called Gangnam ‘wannabes’ – those who try to emulate the exclusive lifestyle in Seoul’s Gangnam district, where the rapper and comedian Psy grew up.

Satire on extreme class distinctions

South Korea was a poor country in the aftermath of the Second World War and up to the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the country experienced an economic boom.

But in 1997, the country came close to bankruptcy. This resulted in formerly large, state-controlled companies such as Samsung becoming liberalised.

According to Jacob Ki Nielsen, the economy has now developed into what’s known as neoliberalism, and in South Korea there is now practically no social safety net at all.

”Class differences are growing in South Korea, just like they are elsewhere in the world. But in South Korea this is extreme.”

Satire on a major export product

In the liberalised South Korea, pop music and TV have become export articles that are sold to the other Asian countries. The so-called K-pop (Korean pop) is far cheaper than for instance Japanese pop products.

“K-pop emerged as a result of the 1997 crisis. It wasn’t just because products were cheap at the time, but it’s also a result of creativity and flair,” says Jacob Ki Nielsen, adding that Koreans are a well-educated people and consequently well-equipped for facing the economic challenges.

A sarcastic take on plastic culture

K-pop is more than just an export article. It has also turned into a culture in a country which boasts the world’s highest number of plastic operations per capita.

“K-pop is an extremely sexualised aesthetic universe, and that’s one of the things that Psy is poking fun at in the video.”

So in addition to a silly dance and a funny video, Gangnam Style is a sarcastic comment on South Korean society, but according to Jacob Ki Nielsen this is unlikely to bring about any major change, since after all it’s just a music video.

If anything, he says, the video has become a source of national pride for the South Koreans as it has become a global hit and the most popular YouTube video ever.


Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

Translated by: Dann Vinther

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