Gangnam Style Haeundae
Gangnam Style

Gangnam Style…66 million hits and growing. A viral video by the K-POP sensation known as the singer ‘PSY’? Mark Zuckerberg and even Justin Beiber apparently want in as well.

Let’s just take a second to ask if there are more things to learn here beyond how popular this music video has become. Nothing against Mark Zuckerberg or Justin Beiber, but I think they have missed the point of what is going on here. It is great that this has been wildly successful, but there is more to this story than just numbers if we look a little deeper.

In case you haven’t seen it, here is the video from PSY:

Here are three things we can learn from Gangnam Style that help us to better understand the Korean identity. …and if you are a Korean and reading this, please leave a comment- love to hear what you think about what I have written:

1. ‘Our Country’: Together Forever. Korea has an amazing history that is worth spending a little time reviewing. It is a sad history of overcoming the worst situation. South Korea stands proud today as a prosperous country with global influence. There is a slight comical reflection that PSY is making to this modern character of Korea if the film clip is deconstructed further, but more on that a little later. For now, a quick history lesson to put this in context. Did you know for example:…

  • Korea was formed by three kingdoms being united (by force) in the late 8th Century.
  • Korea was besieged by Japan at the end of the 16th Century, and it as the result of a naval battle not dissimilar to the British victory at Trafalgar that it survives today.
  • Korea suffered under Mongol raids during the 17th Century, but retained its integrity as a people and territory intact.
  • Korea fell under Japanese colonial rule during the beginning of the 20th Century from 1910 until 1945.
  • South Korea emerged in 1948, and was soon involved in bitter fighting with North Korea. A truce was agreed to cease hostilities in 1953, but the ‘Demilitarised Zone’ (DMZ: an area of about 4 km in width) continues to separate both countries.

What does all of this have to do with PSY dancing like he is riding a horse in the video of Gangnam Style surrounded by babes? Well, the song is not a history lesson in itself although there are a lot of references to Korean culture. By understanding history you can see the strength of Korean identity: ‘Uni-Nara” or ‘Our Country’ as Koreans will refer to themselves.

This is perhaps the most interesting phenomenon that is taking place through PSY. An expression of national strength and identity through K-POP.

2. Get behind success. Following this thread, Koreans love to back something that is successful, and if that something is Korean so much the better.

I took part in a flash-mob for Gangnam Style recently run to promote KOFFIA (Korean Film Festival in Australia) at Sydney’s Martin Place. Later that day, I met with some (non-Korean) friends who are die-hard ‘drum and bass’ clubbers. They were talking about their weekend, and I suddenly realised what was so obvious a distinction between Koreans and Westerners. Koreans (and I know they will dispute this), largely conform to a successful stereotype. Westerners also do this to some extent, but have a greater likelihood to express this independently.

Purely from an analysis of two different music styles, I think it is possible to draw some understanding of what distinguishes Korean and Western expression (an assumption that holds no water if you bring Justin Beiber or One Direction into the mix, but let’s leave them out of the conversation for now). The Korean is likely to replicate what has been successful, and will do that very well. And we should all sit up and take note of this strength in the Korean character: their capacity for replication of what is successful, especially in business, is admirable!

3. Subtlety of Expression. The third thing we can learn is about the subtlety of expression in the Korean character. Here again we see some a distinction worth exploring.

You need to spend time to get to know the Korean. To understanding their way of ‘feeling’, which is part of identity that Westerns are not that attuned toward. The Westerner can often be loud and abrasive, and there are plenty of well-worn stereotypes of the loud American tourist or shameless Australian holding court. The Korean has a lot to say, but expect to spend some period of time with them first until you are on the same channel. That said, it is a perspective worth taking time to hear.

So what is Gangnam Style about exactly? Is it just a fanciful dance of craziness? Maybe, and PSY is a pretty interesting guy, but there is more to the story.

Gangnam is a suburb in Seoul which has many of the beautiful shops and beautiful people. And they love to flaunt it.

There is more to write about the meaning of Gangnam Style, and I am happy to deconstruct that further if there is enough demand in the comments below (my not-so-subtle hint to you, dear reader), but for now suffice to write that it is a social commentary on an emerging sub-culture within Gangnam that takes itself a little too seriously and is perhaps holding on just a little too tight. Maybe PSY is just wanting to ask everyone to lighten up a bit, and go have a dance.

So go on, and yes the world is watching. Who cares! Is anything more important that being real?


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