Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Music Review: Gangnam Style

"Gangnam Style"
  • Artist: PSY (Jae-sang Park)
  • Album: PSY 6 Part 1
  • Release: 15 July 2012
  • Genre: Hip-Hop, Dance
  • Label: YG, Republic (Universal)
  • Writers: Gun-hyung Yu, Jae-sang Park
  • Producer: Hyun-Seok Yang
On the week of Tuesday, 18 September 2012, a song sung entirely in Korean has achieved the #1 spot on the United States iTunes store. Concurrently, that same song also peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. And I have even confirmed rumours that the song in question has also been played on American top-40 radio. This was not supposed to happen. I'm not saying it shouldn't happen, it's just that since America's entertainment industries have grown self-sufficient over the years, any attempt by foreign media to make a break on our shores will get swept away by the natural forces of marketing. And I'm not a fan of that either; I want us to play nicely with the rest of the world. (That means buy more anime.) But as such is the fate of "Gangnam Style" by PSY, I was too in awe of this feat to not want to take a closer look.

Before I begin the review proper, you may be wondering how "Gangnam Style" could've possibly caught the attention of us Yanks. Welp, as always, the Internet is to blame. The song's music video received Retweets and other buzz from celebrities including Robbie Williams, T-Pain, Tom Cruise, Katy freaking Perry, and last but not least Britney Spears, whose attention led to PSY making an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres talk show. The way I see it, once you make it on network television, that's it, you've become a fixture of our pop culture. And I can't blame them for lavishing the song, and in particular its music video with all this attention. The song seems to have taken bits from some of our dance-pop songs of recent. The most prevalent influence is "Party Rock Anthem" by LMFAO, in particular the powerfully-sung bridge that breaks up the rapping between the verses and the minimalist chorus. Speaking of which, I for one keep confusing the bass track from the "hook" with the one that starts off "Blow" by Ke$ha. And the rhythm of the raps within the verses reminds me of... oh [noun], "Fergalicious" by Fergie. The video, at least from a purely visual standpoint, seems tailor-made for American audiences, almost to parody levels. You can follow along below:

Excessive wind with tiny bits of paper thrown about? 0:32.
Random explosion in the background? 1:08.
Gratutitous close-up of a woman's curvy hindquarters? 1:36 - during a yoga session, no less.

And let's not forget the dance that the video is making popular even as I type this. Basically, most of its motions evoke riding an imaginary horse. And yes, someone has played it on top of the imaginary-horse-riding scenes if Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My opinion is that the whole dance looks a little dorky, and the illustration depicting it on the single's cover do not dissuade me from that prejudice. But it's not a dealbreaker, and besides it's better than the last time someone tried to make a dance craze go viral, or for that matter the last time a song got famous through the Internet.

But "Gangnam Style" means a lot more to its intended audience of South Koreans, so I'll take that excuse to explain what the heck "Gangnam Style" means. A little geography lesson for you peoples: Gangnam is the name a district within the city of Seoul, and more specifically, its culture and fashion centre. See also: Shibuya in Tokyo, Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, SoHo in London, and... gosh, does Philadelphia have one worth mentioning? Gangnam boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and with stakes that high, appearance is everything. Gangnam has given rise to a social class of girls called "deonjangnyeo", literally "soybean paste women", who show off their disposable income in public (i.e. drinking expensive coffee), only to make sacrifices within their private life (i.e. eating cheap ramen) [1]. But rather than make any comment explicitly disparaging or even endorsing this lifestyle, it's merely used as a metaphor in order to pick up chicks, as exemplified in the first verse, translated below:
A girl who is warm and humane during the day
A classy girl who know how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee
A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes
A girl with that kind of twist

I'm a guy
A guy who is as warm as you during the day
A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down
A guy whose heart bursts when night comes
That kind of guy
So basically, PSY is saying to his romatic prey that she know when to restrain herself and when to act wild, and that he is capable of the same. I'll tell you one thing, it's nice that America still hasn't managed to export its permissive views on sexuality within popular culture. (I'm pointing at you, Enrique Iglesias.) Further dispelment of the machismo that we Americans have come to expect fom the dating game may be found in other lines such as "A girl who covers herself but is more sexy than a girl who bares it all" and "A guy who has bulging ideas rather than muscles". Don't get me wrong, I'm nowhere near opposed to fanservice of the female variety, but there are times when it's just not sensible, you know?

And who could he be trying to put the moves upon? Well, it just so happens that a clue resides in the one line that was included by enforcement of a ruling from the International Songwriters' Conference of 1992, which states that all popular music originating from an East Asian country must include at least one word or phrase of a Western language, preferably English. And this song fits the bill by using the words "Sexy Lady" within the chorus, occasionaly interspersed with its trademark "Oppa Gangnam style". Well, that's generic enough to work.

"Gangnam Style" works on so many levels. On its surface, it fits well into the dance-pop that has been clogging our charts for the past few years, but without being obnoxious. (I'm pointing at you, Pitbull.) But to those of us who have experience with the Korean language and the culture of Seoul, or to those of us (like me ^_^) who simply do the research on the song itself, it becomes so much more. It may not be setting out to fix the social inequalities which exist in and around Gangnam, but such quirks are referenced tastefully and provide a cute context for a "let's pick up chicks" type of song. That the rest of the world managed to take notice of it is a tribute to the positive power of the Internet. And I, for one, welcome our new Asian overlords.

Just kidding; he's gonna be a one-hit wonder over here, I know it.

Edit 12 June 2013: I was wrong.  Sort of.

Lyrics: 4 coffees out of 5
Music: 3 coffees out of 5
Performance: 3 coffees out of 5
The Call: 3 coffees out of 5 (C)

[1] Fisher, Max. "Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea's Music Video Sensation". 23 August 2012, Retrieved 2 October 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/08/gangnam-style-dissected-the-subversive-message-within-south-koreas-music-video-sensation/261462/.

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