Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Psy–“Gangnam Style”

My local radio station called this song a “phenomenon.” *screaming*

Did you like the song?
HOLY CRAP, MY LOCAL RADIO STATION PLAYED THIS SONG ON THE RADIO TODAY. I just…I just…no, you don’t understand. This is my local radio station in America that (with the exception of the occasional Enrique Iglesias or Pitbull or Shakira song that’s in English with Spanish highlights) never, never plays anything that’s not strictly in English. And they played this song completely in Korean (except for the handful of delightful English phrases). Guys, I can’t stress this enough: this never happens. I didn’t believe it when I heard it, and about halfway through listening, I started making this high-pitched whining noise that I’m pretty sure is the physical embodiment of squee.

Psy, congratulations: you’ve made it to America.

PSY Gangnam Style Review English

So a Kpop artist has finally achieved an unprecedented amount of international attention, breaking out of Asia and hitting the usually deaf shores of music in America, so much so that my little backwater town’s radio station is playing the song and having jolly good fun mispronouncing “Gangnam” all over the place. But since this very literally never happens, I think it’s worth examining why in this particular case, it finally did.

Gangnam Style Psy and Hyuna

I’m recognizing, of course, that it’s hard/impossible to determine before the fact what will be popular, while hindsight is 20/20, and all that. Some people are just in the right place at the right time with the right product. (And this is not to imply that Kpop stars have never had success in American markets before; obviously they have—just not, in my limited experience, quite to this degree.) But here are some circumstances that happily conflated to Psy’s benefit in this case:

Psy’s a solo artist known for comedy. Solo artists tend to do better than groups in America, and Americans love comedy. The song is cute, amusing, and fun, as well as catchy and memorable, with easy parts for everyone to sing along to. But moreover, it doesn’t take itself seriously, and Psy’s not afraid to make himself look ridiculous in the name of comedy and entertainment. This is a rare quality in a Kpop idol, but one that I think will become more and more valuable.

Musically, “Gangnam Style” has a strong resemblance to the song it’s parodying (either intentionally or unintentionally; I’m not sure, and I don’t think it matters): LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It.” The most memorable part in both songs is the chorus hook: the title line spoken after a brief break of dead space (“…I’m sexy, and I know it,” “…Oppan Gangnam style”). I personally think “Gangnam Style” is much better, but regardless, that part makes both songs catchy and distinctive.

What was your favorite part of the song?
I looove the buildup to the hook, the part that showcases Psy’s voice and really makes this song different.

Psy Gangnam Style horses equestrian

Does the English make you want to rip your eardrums out?
Honestly, it makes me happy. Rarely does English in a Kpop song make me this overjoyed. Perhaps it’s a symptom of my general mood. “Heyyyyy, sexy lady!” Psy attended college in America, though, and as you’ll see from his interviews, his English is pretty good.

Did you like the video?
It’s goofy, it’s silly, it’s fun. But since I’m all about the gender issues nowadays, what I like most is how the video seeks to be an affectionate parody of the assumed male gaze in other music videos. Hyuna’s deliberately overt sexualisation, the extreme close-ups of the yoga lady’s rear end and Psy silently screaming at it as if in the throes of sexual frustration, how silly and over-the-top Psy and Noh Hongcheol (the guy pelvic-thrusting in the elevator) and the other men look when acting flirtatious or doing the female dance parts (as compared to females in music videos, for whom dancing in this sort of way is par for the course)—all of these add up to highlight how unnecessarily demeaning many music videos have been to female dancers.

Psy Gangnam Style yoga ladies dat ass
DAT ASS. Ahem, what?

I think it’s especially interesting that 4minute’s Hyuna is there, as this is something she’s been accused of in the past, so I see this video as a way for her to subtly strike back against being treated as a sex object in her dancing routines. Mind you, I’m not necessarily expecting this to change right away, but anything that draws awareness to the problem of inherent sexism in the industry is good. Particularly if it’s as appealing as this video.

Gangnam Style Psy and Hyuna

By the way, Hyuna fans should check out the response video “Oppa is Just My Style.” Unfortunately, though, it is guilty of the stereotypical hyper-sexualization of females that “Gangnam Style” successfully challenges. I guess you can’t win them all. On the plus side, the ending, in which Psy gives Hyuna a piggy back ride, is super-cute.

Was there a storyline? If so, did it make sense?
Just as the portrayal of women in “Gangnam Style” is subtly subversive, so is the video’s plotline, which is an understated critique of the lifestyle in Gangnam, an affluent area in Korea.

In each situation (except those with the cameos), it seems that Psy is a very important person in a luxurious setting, but when the camera pans out, the locations (and thus Psy’s position) are shown to be much less lavish than they had first appeared.

His sandy resort turns out to be an ordinary park…

Psy Gangnam Style beach

His fancy upper-class sauna turns out to be a meeting area for what looks like yakuza…

Psy Gangnam Style mob gangsters yakuza

His trendy disco nightclub is instead a bus of vacationing older ladies…

Psy Gangnam Style bus with disco balls

His attempt at tennis (a stereotypical pastime of the rich) seems to end poorly for him…

Psy Gangnam Style tennis

He goes boating but can’t make it look suave (it’s hard in a bulky life-jacket)…

Psy Gangnam Style boat speedboat

He hangs out in construction sites under highways...

Psy Gangnam Style highway underpass explosion

...and in subways, where Hyuna is pole-dancing for some reason…

Psy Gangnam Style girl Hyuna subway poledancing

He spends time in equestrian centers (horse-riding being a very expensive sport) but never seems to actually ride a real one; instead, he rides the merry-go-round or just pretends he has an invisible horse…

Psy Gangnam Style merry go round horses

His sexy pimp-like catwalk with a model on each arm is interrupted by exorbitant amounts of trash and industrial packing materials…

Psy Gangnam Style models trash funny

And finally, an extreme close-up reveals Psy to be on the most dignified of ivory thrones…

Psy Gangnam Style toilet

By ridiculing the ideals of this neighborhood, Psy suggests that its residents have become too shallow, too vain, too obsessed with showing off pointless material wealth and status, instead of living more fulfilling lives. And I believe that the message is intended to encompass humanity as a whole.

It’s no surprise to me that, despite the language barrier, this message should resonate so strongly in America, where for many people, becoming rich and famous (or at least preserving the illusion of being rich and famous) has long been considered the end goal. After seeing the economic devastation that such a self-centered lifestyle can cause, however, perhaps we are now beginning to move more toward ideals of humility and bettering our communities.

Psy Gangnam Style crowd dance strobe lights

With this in mind, note how the backup dancers in the end are all having fun cooperating together while wearing work uniforms, a contrast to the leisurely vacationing lifestyle he had shown previously: honest, hard work triumphing over empty, meaningless excess.

Was the dance cool and distinctive?
I don’t think this dance can realistically be called “cool,” but considering the way it’s taking everywhere by storm, I’d say it’s certainly “distinctive.” Psy even attempted to teach it to Britney Spears! As Psy explained to her and to Ellen DeGeneres, for one of the dance moves, you’re supposed to “bounce like you’re riding an invisible horse.” (And you’re supposed to “dress classy and dance cheesy,” hee hee.)

Psy Gangnam Style horse dance

The whole invisible-horse thing reminds me of Monty Python’s coconut shells from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, actually. :)

Psy Gangnam Style Monty Python gif

Do the members look good?
Either good or deliberately silly (or both!). I like the brightly colored clothing.

Psy Gangnam Style Yoo Jaesuk

Which member stood out the most?
Psy, you’re cool and all…Hyuna looks like she’s having fun…Yoo Jaesuk (the guy above in yellow, a comedian) was, well, out there if nothing else…Noh Hongcheol (the guy in the elevator, another comedian) was pretty funny strutting his stuff…but no, no. I have to give it to this little guy, Hwang Minwoo, a five-year-old who caught Psy’s eye when he was on Korea’s Got Talent:

Gangnam style cute little guy

This dude is, like, the definition of an adorable badass. I just—ugh, I love everything about him! Full marks, sir.

Do you like it enough to buy the song?
Guilty as charged. :)

Any ending thoughts?
Hyuna seems to be on a role for viral videos after her “Bubble Pop” was popular. I’m a fan, so this pleases me.

Since the release of “Gangnam Style” in July (ugh, I’m sorry I’m so slow to review things these days), the video has gone viral and led to success for Psy in America. For example, as of today, the song is currently #1 on the U.S. iTunes chart. Psy has been interviewed on American shows such as CNN, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Today, MTV, and VH1, and he was even part of a sketch on Saturday Night Live.

Predictably, it’s been parodied about a million times (a list of some amusing parodies is here). The song has its own meme page. Even Hitler’s getting in on the action.

Psy Gangnam Style Noh Hongcheol
Who wouldn’t want a piece of this? ;)

In response to every news outlet I’ve read suggesting that Psy’s success in America is a one-time thing: I absolutely, emphatically disagree. I’ve been saying for a while that Kpop is providing something that Americans, at least, aren’t getting from their pop music at home. I think the success of this song/video is indicative of that, and I believe it is a trend that will continue.

Boyfriend’s one-liner:
“I like horses.”

Psy Gangnam Style cartoon horses

Thanks for reading! Please share your comments below! :)


  1. This MV is hillarious. I heard about this song about 2 weeks ago(from a cousin that I initiated into kpop no less), and it was really fun to watch. The song itself is not that great(to my ears anyway) but the video more than makes up for it. Great Review.

  2. Thanks, glad you enjoyed! And I'm so impressed you initiated your cousin into Kpop! :)

  3. Your review pretty much is exactly how I first reacted to/interpreted Gangnam Style. Love it, keep up the good work!

  4. Aww, *hugs* thanks very much! I appreciate the encouragement!

  5. I like the way you daced.what is the them of the song?

  6. I think the theme is parodying the excesses of wealth and the rich, showing how silly they look. The dance is really fun, too! :)

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