‘Kangnam Style’s Irony is Missed b/c of the Publicity Wave

24 September 2012, 1500 EDT

I try to avoid K-pop on my website, because I find far too many foreigner websites in Korea focus on the silliest, shallowest elements of what is around us – probably because the language is so hard, Korean pop culture is the easiest for us to understand. But I keep getting asked, and it is huge hit, so here a few thoughts:

1. Thank god ‘Kangnam Style’ shows a level of irony, self-awareness, humor, and creativity that K-pop normally lacks. That alone is enough to value it, given how shallow, idiotic, and pre-packaged almost all Korean pop is otherwise. K-pop is wasteland IMO. (Try it yourself; tell me how long before you cringe.) None of these carbon-copy bands like the Wonder Girls or Girls Generation or whatever would even get considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I’m from Cleveland, so I thought I’d add that little plug). K-pop slavishly copies from the boy-band/girl-band model that began in the US 20 years ago and crossed-over to Japan. The hair, the synched dance-moves, the gratingly cutesy presentations, the insipid teen love-story lyrics – it’s awful. None of them can play an instrument; they are recruited solely because they’re hot, and the music-machine does the rest.

Mix Munedo and the Kardashians in the Korean language, and you get K-pop. Huge props here go to Busan Haps magazine for promoting far more authentic Korean rock that goes unfortunately unnoticed. Korea desperately, desperately needs to de-MTV-ize/de-idol-ize its music scene and get some raging, slovenly, desperado-rockers like Meatloaf or Janis Joplin who care about music instead of bling. Instead, it’s hideous, so-repetitive-I-can’t-even-tell-the-difference-anymore, synth-pop even Duran Duran would be embarrassed to release, all controlled by corporate hacks with no interest in deviation and who are persistently rumored to sexually exploit their young charges. Like almost everything else in the Korean economy, the music industry desperately needs deconcentration and innovation.

More generally, K-pop’s blatant rip-off of successful foreign models reflects the depressingly widespread Korean ‘copy-culture,’ where value comes from cloning not originality. This is huge problem throughout Korea – whether in the epidemic of plagiarism that reaches to the highest levels, the downloading piracy that destroyed the Korean video game industry despite obsessive levels of gaming here, or Samsung’s shameless reverse engineering of the iPhone. As just about any western educator or businessman in Korea can tell you, intellectual property and copyright are all but ignored here. My students pulled so much from the internet at term-paper time, that I’ve stopped giving take-home exams. So for sheer originality and willingness to experiment despite an educational and business culture that openly frowns on that, ‘Kangnam Style’ is a breakthrough.

2. Also important is the social message embedded in the lyrics and imagery which the relentlessly nationalistic Korean media is studiously ignoring in order to focus on its foreign success. This article from the Atlantic captures this very well. It’s an ironic flagship of Korean culture, because the song mocks, appropriately IMO, the shallow, elitist, materialist understanding of success that is so depressingly common in Korea: moving to the chicest place [Kangnam] in Seoul [the center of the universe], with a foreign car [BMWs preferred], a girlfriend who’s had too much plastic surgery [racing girls preferred], and a hot-shot job at a chaebol [Samsung please!]. I am constantly amazed and disturbed at the emphasis on wealth and rank in Korea. Yes, I know it’s a Confucian country, and, yes, I’ve heard the argument that yangban ranking has been transferred to business success in Korea (the chaebol are Korea’s modern aristocrats and all that). But there’s more, I think.

The emphasis on face, prestige, networking, and connections contains a deeply inegalitarian, illiberal personalism that implies sharp insider/outsider distinctions and vicious social ranking. Hierarchy in Korea, IMO, is punishing, well beyond the Romneyite  ‘prosperity gospel’ notion that your economic success reflects your godliness. Just about everyone I know in Korea is thrilled to tell me that their ancestors were yangban; so much so, that you’d never know that most Joseon Koreans were illiterate peasants. When they ask me, I tell them my grandparents came from Ireland destitute, and we were lucky to come to the US. People then look at me like, ‘why would you admit that?’ I know colleagues who have been criticized for buying cars bigger or fancier than their ‘seniors,’ because it’s not appropriate. No less than the president of Korea openly ranks the world into ‘players’ and the ‘marginal’ (too bad, you LDCs – we’re not one of you anymore). The notion that Korea must be ‘culturally advanced’ is flogged relentlessly by the foreign ministry (just read the white papers that routinely demand more prestige like it’s some psychic debt the world owes Korea), and the Korean media regularly gins up bogus rankings of this or that to say that Korea is ‘advancing.’

Being ‘advanced’ obviously implies others are backward. This is inegalitarian, not liberal, sorta racist, and bad for democracy. It sends disturbing signals about those are not as ‘culturally advanced’ or prestigious. It is arriviste and suggests contempt for those ‘below,’ i.e., those who make less money than you, don’t live in Seoul, didn’t go to a SKY school, or come from an LDC. It’s why Korean business men get released from jail despite their shenanigans. It’s why ‘lookism’ is endemic in the Korean workplace. One thing I like so much about ‘Kangnam Style’ is its modesty and self-effacement, characteristics hyper-nationalistic, prestige-obsessed Korea needs a lot more.

3. Unfortunately, none of this subversive message gets much play by the Korea media. Instead, the meme has been that the song’s global break-out vindicates Korea’s cultural awesomeness. No less than the Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s paper of record, was sure to tell us “on Tuesday Psy was seen drinking whiskey with Leonardo DiCaprio, Gerard Butler and Paris Hilton in the VIP room of a club in New York, and that the club went wild when the DJ recognized him and played his song.” Yep, drinking top-shelf whiskey with Western celebrities is what success is all about! Did it occur to the CI that exactly that type of shallow status-chasing is a point of mockery in ‘Kangnam Style’? But who cares, right? He’s a famous Korean, so let’s strut it…

This was entirely predictable, as the over-the-top, populist Korean media tends to read every Korean success as evidence of world’s unslakeable interest in Korea and proof of Korean amazingness. So the whole interpretation, once again, fits the ‘we’re culturally advanced, and foreigners love us’ trope. The Korea Times even admitted it: “Few Koreans will want to make little of or speak ill of the global sensation Psy has touched off.” Yes, that’s right; don’t think about what the message might be, about the obsession with wealth and status, and how that might further undercut equality in this already chaebol-dominated democracy. No, let’s just instrumentalize yet another success story (Yuna Kim, Shin-soo Choo, all those golfers), or any story, no matter how macabre, for the vanity project of Korean nationalism.

So if you want to know why disputes over tiny, uninhabited rocks touch off such a storm that the Korea Times predicted a samurai invasion of Korea (no joke – read the link; and yes, the Korean media is that inflammatory and unprofessional), then here you go: Korea is so nationalist, it would make Fox News blush (well maybe not Hannity).

So three cheers for Psy’s modesty and honesty about life in Korea. We need a lot more of that.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.