"Mindset of this dance is 'dress classy and dance cheesy'"
Gangnam Style (강남스타일) is a pop song by Korean songwriter and performer (though he seems to prefer 'composer' and 'singer') PSY. It was released in July 2012 as part of an EP called PSY 6 (Six Rules), Part 1, which is half of an album completed later that year. At the time of writing, the video for this song had over 630 million hits on Youtube and was headed for the all-time high score.
PSY, I would say, is not entirely a K-Pop act. Apart from being an anomaly in writing his own material, he's a bit more hip-hopish and edgy beyond the superficial wholesomeness and sanitised sexy that the genre seems to expect of its performers. The cover of the record shows PSY as a cartoon merman in a design that I expected to see from the Butthole Surfers long before I saw it come out of Korea. But what's important is that PSY is not just a songwriter, he is a fan. He loves Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears (a helluva lot more than I do, I must say, especially the latter). Now a chubby Korean dude in his mid-thirties, anyone will admit, is the most unlikely vehicle for this achievement but this attitude makes him a genuine pop artist, and here he is the pop artist who constructed the latest iteration of the perfect pop song. It is catchy without being a horrible tapeworm, it is not particularly annoying or offensive, it is amusing, and it is massively danceable even (or especially) when you're drunk out of your mind. Those of you who got sick and tired of Poker Face by sometime in 2011 finally found its replacement in Gangnam Style.
Gangnam-gu is, some say, "the capital of Seoul." It's the posh part of town where you go to party. Some cities have the party quarter in a seedy neighbourhood. Some have it next to the Hilton. I guess Seoul is the latter. I haven't been there but I have lived in places like that. By declaring himself both "oppa" (an honorific literally meaning big brother and used by a woman for older men within her generation) and "Gangnam style" the singer is telling the world that he's a character who is a cut above the rest—what in another day and parlance you might call a "hep cat"—ISO woman with matching attributes. The catch and the irony in the whole story, as everyone who has lived in that sort of rich-party-quarter city will understand, is that there is a Rule 1 to places like Gangnam-gu: it is pretentious to talk about it. If you're really one of the hip crowd you're expected to treat its existence as casually as you would if you lived there and whatever the hell "Gangnam style" is comes to you as naturally as farting. So the story turns into that of an extremely likeable poser. The best suggestion for an English rendition of the title that I've seen comes from teleny, who recommended "Big Daddy from Millionaire Row."
The lyrics are really just about the sort of guy that the singer is and the sort of woman that would please him. We can assume that that includes some of the delicious girls that feature in his video but to him it's very important that it be the kind of girl who can handle a man who drinks his coffee "in one shot, while it's still hot" but would not do so herself. In short, he gets to be the wild one but she has to be a bit more demure. The fact that the 1960s and women's lib came and went even in Korea does not seem to bother him. He is, after all, a "man who knows a thing or two."
An article in The Atlantic suggests that the humour in the message is much more subversive than the Western mind, more accustomed to far less subtle social satire, would recognise. I can accept that there are digs about the vapid, spoiled snootiness of the residents of Gangnam-gu itself and about the material lifestyle that it represents. The article gives me the sense that, in Korean terms, Gangnam Style is as close to class warfare as they ever get. You may want to consider their interpretation more authoritative than mine.
The humour might be (but is not) why Gangnam Style went way beyond a pop song. It does not explain why it rocketed past being a viral internet sensation that escaped from the circle of its intended viewers and got lodged deep in meme territory. Part of that, I think, is that everyone understands the humour in the title once it's explained and gives it no further thought. Some of it lies in the fact that the original outlet for the song was a very well crafted video showing PSY and his troupe performing things "Gangnam Style" until the whole idea of Gangnam Style is turned on its head, slapped around a bit, defenestrated, put through the wringer, and set on its feet again with a mustache drawn on its forehead and somewhat worse for the wear.
The major part of the success, however, is that anyone can dance "Gangnam Style." It is a physical meme as much as jazz hands is. You stand legs apart, cross your hands in front of you, step in place 2-2-1-1 or somewhere thereabouts, jump and wave. If you ever as a kid pretended to be riding a horse and throwing a lasso, that's exactly it: you prance to the rhythm. And you know what? Even a half-arsed approximation of those moves will do because people will recognise it instantly even when it's done poorly. The secret to the success of this number as a dance phenomenon, though, is that not only does it not demand precision (or even commitment) from the casual performer but that it also lends itself to being expanded in all possible directions by choreographers of any skill level and for any number of dancers on any stage larger than a handkerchief. Not that its creation was a question of making something up on the spot like you're allowed to do. PSY's choreographers considered all sorts of things, including kangaroos and trees, before hitting on the horsey dance.
For some reason Gangnam Style gets compared to the Macarena by people who ought to know better. It is not the Macarena, though you could compare it to that venerable favourite of little kids and grannies, the Chicken Dance (which it might even replace in a generation). The Macarena was commercial dancing-by-numbers that allowed half a billion tards, including those who had no business getting out of their oversized chairs in the first place, to take themselves seriously as scantily clad dancers. And the tune was pure annoyance on a loop. It's just not cool. Al Gore and Dr. Evil did the Macarena. Gangnam Style, on the other hand, is a real song, and it's one that demands that you spend a minute not taking yourself seriously as a dancer, as a person, or even as a temporary habitat for several trillion microbes.
The best and most appealing part of the original Gangnam Style is how, having a satirical edge itself, it openly invites parody and imitation. If you browse Youtube you'll find that Gangnam has invaded everything from prison yards in the Philippines to the halls and classrooms of education ("Oppan Chomsky Style," for real) and sports venues everywhere. You'll find legal and illegal flash mobs from smack in the centre of Jakarta to somewhere in Berlin. Outside of Youtube, even the local high school principal was reported to look slightly puzzled but game as he followed his staff in entertaining the student body. Unlikely luminaries like David Cameron and Ai Weiwei have been witnessed or taped doing it Gangnam Style.
As long as they're posted, take a look at some of my (and most other people's) favourites, which have gone viral in their own right: The mother and son act called "Umma Gangnam Style," where the son taught his 60-year-old mother and she left him in the dust, Ohio University's marching band, and the California life guards who almost got fired for it. Of course it's also inspired any number of crossover spoofs like this one that The Custodian shared with me. I'm sure that more worthy efforts will follow as the craze at the time of writing was showing few signs of subsiding. These here already have millions of views.
Despite the transience of internet memes, youth, gloria mundi, and all that, I predict that Gangnam Style will stick around for years even if we hear little more from PSY outside of Korea. We've heard worse. I can live with it and so can everyone else who remembers the '80s and doesn't want them back. For a while, I will even admit to enjoying it.
Teh production team thanks the following noders for their suggestions and commentary: The Custodian, Glowing Fish, DonJaime, sloebertje