Have you seen it yet? Yeah, we’re talking about “Gangnam Style.” The YouTube video has more than 230 million views. The song is utterly infectious. The crazy dance is ubiquitous. And, most interestingly, South Korean rapper PSY is bringing attention to a whole new pop-culture scene.
In the wake of the video’s viral success, two of our regular contributors offer differing takes on the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon. Helen Lee, a Korean-American, concedes that the video is entertaining but worries that its true satirical message is being lost in an overabundance of exploitative media hype. And columnist Jelani Greenidge, who doesn’t hesitate to share his opinion about the song (“It’s amazing“), offers five lessons that church worship leaders can learn from “Gangnam Style” (no joke!).
Check out the articles, then let us know where you fall on the “Gangnam” spectrum.
POP CULTURE SENSATION: Korean pop star PSY performs his hit ‘Gangnam Style’ on NBC’s ‘Today Show’ at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. The video has surpassed 200 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Nancy Kaszerman/Newscom)
Perhaps you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about “Gangnam Style,” the latest YouTube video-gone-viral with more than 220 million views to date. If you are one of the few remaining inhabitants of the planet who haven’t seen the video, then let me bring you up to speed:
• The rap/song features South Korean pop star Park Jae-Sang, who goes by the name “Psy” (short for “Psycho”), accompanied by a cast of South Korean celebrities who most of us will not recognize, all dancing to a driving, ear-catching techno beat.
• Unless you are fluent in Korean, you can expect to understand none of the words in the video except “sexy lady” (and of course, “Gangnam style”. By the way, “Gangnam” is pronounced Gahng-nahm — not “gang” rhyming with “bang” as I continue to hear many American media types pronounce it.) You can find a translation of the full song all over the Internet; here is one example.
• “Gangnam” refers to the wealthiest, most opulent district in Seoul, South Korea; it’s an area that is only 15 square miles but holds nearly as much of the nation’s GDP as New York state (that’s state, not city) does in the U.S. You can look at this infographic for some more details.)
• No horses were harmed in the making of the video, but they do inspire the dance move that is taking the world by storm.
So is “Gangnam Style” worth watching? I have seen it a few times now, and I admit the tune is catchy and the video visually arresting (albeit occasionally bizarre; Psy breaks down the song scene-by-scene here). I’ve now also seen countless clips of Psy’s appearances on the gamut of American television shows, from Ellen to SNL to the MTV Video Music Awards, each time with Psy doing his signature horse trotting from the song, each time with an exuberant audience laughing and loving every moment.
Yet with each time I see the spectacle of Psy, I feel like my soul dies just a little bit.
Surely I must be overreacting! As Psy himself says, this is a historic moment for Koreans, who have never had the chance to see one of their own experience this level of pop-culture fame and acceptance here in the U.S. Shouldn’t I, a Korean-American, be thrilled for his success and full of ethnic pride for his popularity? Or at the very least, can’t I just enjoy the song alongside his hundreds of millions of fans and try to master his moves like Britney Spears?
The easy thing to do would be to watch the video, have a few laughs, share it like everyone else is doing, then move on with my life. What’s the harm? But I think about an exhortation that Professor Rosalie de Rosset gave to Moody Bible Institute students recently, and it stops me short:
“Having a philosophy of leisure means that, as a Christian, you have thought theologically and biblically about what you do with the time you call your own, with what you choose as entertainment, what you do when you relax or you may fall into the moral problem of drift, of a ‘group think’ mentality which merely follows a leaderless crowd, falling into triviality but even more the great emptiness that can haunt us as we drift along by chance or by circumstance.”
(From Dr. de Rosset’s chapel talk entitled “Mindful or Mindless: A Theology of Leisure and Technology,” September 12, 2012, Moody Bible Institute.)
I think that it’s the descent into “group think” that has bothered me most about the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon. Most people can only discern that Psy is singing about “sexy ladies” and managing to get a whole slew of them to dance like horses. Few have looked into the song enough to understand that it is actually poking fun at the lifestyle and excesses of über-upscale Gangnam.
I imagine my ambivalence about the video’s popularity might be akin to what I’ve heard some of my African American friends say about certain black rappers or shows on BET — that they are unintentionally propagating old stereotypes in the manner of a modern-day minstrel show. The sad irony is that the more popular “Gangnam Style” has become, the more its actual substance has gotten lost amidst the spectacle. What began as a song that contained an interesting social commentary has become a “minstrel show” for the majority masses.
Moreover, when music becomes popularized, it takes on a cultish quality: people become converted, they evangelize about the songs (made easy these days with all of our “liking” and “sharing” and “tweeting” of media), and the artist is turned into an idol. In his book Listen to This, music critic Alex Ross writes that “audiences have routinely adopted music as a sort of secular religion. … Musicians find themselves, in a strange way, both enshrined and enslaved.”
As I watch Psy move from talk show to talk show, repeating his now familiar shtick of “dress classy, dance cheesy,” as much as there is a part of me that is happy for him and his success (and I admit I feel some of that for him), there is an equal or larger part of me that feels sorry for him. He cannot go anywhere right now without doing the same show, over and over, because that is what the masses desire and require.
A MESSAGE BEHIND THE MADNESS: Those who understand Korean know that ‘Gangnam Style’ is actually poking fun at the lifestyle and excesses of an ultra-wealthy and exclusive district of Seoul, South Korea. But most viewers of the video are likely unaware of the song’s satirical intent.
The masses don’t care if the song has some deeper intent; they don’t want to know what all the foreign-sounding words even mean. They’re content with the novelty of it all (and with the horse dance). Likewise, the media doesn’t care about the opportunity the song gives to open a window — damning though it may be — into South Korean culture. They just use Psy to boost their ratings and then move on. Psy might be having the time of his life, but I wonder if there is any part of him that wishes he could just be free of all the madness.
So the popularity of “Gangnam Style” isn’t just a human-interest story of a K-pop (“Korean-pop”) star unexpectedly making it big. It also gives us clues about the world and culture in which we live. And we can either uncritically laugh alongside Psy’s legion of countless new fans, mimicking him with exuberance, or we can take a moment to ask ourselves if there is any downside to spending a few scant minutes of our lives watching the video, sharing it with our friends, and perpetuating the mass hysteria.
In that same chapel talk to the Moody students, Dr. de Rosset says, “What we do with our leisure can have more effect on us than what we do purposefully. What we do purely for pleasure may have the greatest and most insidious effect on us.” A YouTube video-gone-viral of a Korean pop star may just be a YouTube video-gone-viral of a Korean pop star. Or perhaps it is we who are infected, with an ailment that clouds our ability to even discern anymore what is worth watching and sharing, or what is not even worth watching at all.
CLEARING LIFE’S HURDLES: Lolo Jones on Aug. 6, 2012, during an Olympic preliminary race for the 100-meter hurdles. She hopes to prove wrong the critics who are asking whether she’s more flash than substance. (Photo: Splash News/Newscom)
On Twitter, Lolo Jones sports a playful sense of humor, making jokes about her love life and Olympic adventures, and sometimes sparking controversy.
Her Twitter following skyrocketed after she talked about her decision to save sex for marriage in a May interview on HBO’s Real Sports, gaining herself about 20,000 more followers in four days. Jones has said her purity commitment is rooted in her Christian faith.
As she competed in the women’s 100-meter hurdles this week, Jones found herself in the spotlight again, and media outlets haven’t forgotten the buzz surrounding her virginity. The New York Times wrote about it this past weekend in a controversial article, provocatively titled “For Lolo Jones, Everything Is Image,” which suggested Jones was playing up her virginity, beauty, and poor upbringing for undeserved media attention. That piece has since come under fire.
But despite doubts that her athletic ability warranted attention, the 30-year-old track star came just shy of a medal on Tuesday, August 7, placing fourth in the 100-meter hurdles. Of course that fourth-place finish held little consolation for Jones, who had come so close to a gold medal four years earlier in Beijing before clipping the second-to-last hurdle and falling out of medal contention. Many viewed London as her chance for redemption — or at least that was the narrative that the media played up. Time magazine, for instance, recently featured her as one of three Olympians on the cover of their Olympics special issue and wrote about her trip-up in “Lolo’s No Choke.”
Unfortunately, Tuesday’s outcome fell short of a storybook ending. “I’ll definitely be reading my Bible and try to grasp the positives and see what God has to teach me from all this,” Jones said after the finals. “That’s the only way I feel I can get rebalanced right now, because I am so broken-hearted.”
Without fail, crude jokes about Jones’s virginity lit up Twitter and other social media following her loss.
Faith in the Public Eye
The New York Times wasn’t the first to criticize Jones for talking about her virginity or using sex appeal. TMZ made fun of her virginity. Others also questioned if her ESPN body issue photo compromised her values. On May 25, Jones tweeted in response:
“go to a museum & look at naked pictures/statues of ppl & its considered art but what I did is not? u see no parts exposed” and later, “Ryan hall is another christian. He’s done missions in africa & posed in latest issue. Shall u judge him as well? John 8:7”
Some suggested she date fellow Christian virgin Tim Tebow, to which Jones had a witty tweet: “Ask Tebow if he wants a glass of milk. If he says yes, ask him if he prefers chocolate. if he says no, then no more Tebow date suggestions.”
Jones is African American, Native American, French and Norwegian.
COLORFUL PERSONALITY: In interviews and on Twitter, Jones has been known to be outspoken and irreverent in her comments, which has sometimes landed her in hot water. (Photo: Walter Bieri/Newscom)
Even before this current New York Times controversy, Jones had been stirring things up in the media while awaiting her race in London. Her recent tweet about the Olympic skeet shooting competition drew criticism in light of the Aurora, Colorado, shooting: “USA Men’s Archery lost the gold medal to Italy but that’s ok, we are Americans… When’s da Gun shooting competition?” Jones later tweeted that she had been referring to Americans’ experience with hunting.
Sometimes Jones tweets about her faith, such as on July 26: “As I arrive in London for the Olympics, I’m overwhelmed with emotions. Thank you Lord for another chance and for holding me as i waited.” She thanked people for praying for her on July 22, but after criticism, clarified that her prayer was “to be an inspiration & to honor God,” not to win a gold medal.
“I never have prayed to win a gold medal at Olympics and never will,” Jones tweeted. “The Lord is my Shepard and I shall not want. May His will be done.”
Bonding Through Struggle
In her Real Sports interview, Jones said saving sex for marriage has been “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, harder than training for the Olympics.”
But outside the spotlight, Jones tells how her Christian faith has sustained her through her struggles, and how her sister Angie Jefferson has encouraged her along the way.
Jones wrote about her older sister in an essay for the O.C. Tanner Inspiration Award, which recognizes a person who has inspired an Olympian to succeed. In it, Jones quoted Romans 9:12, “The older will serve the younger,” and wrote, “Angie is my reminder from God to stop at never.”
Growing up poor, Jones learned how to shoplift TV dinners and make a quick escape if she needed to, according to Time. Her family moved around frequently, and was at one point rendered homeless, living in a Salvation Army church basement.
Money was tight, but Jones has told stories about how her mother and sister helped her succeed. In a Procter & Gamble video series, “Raising an Olympian,” Jones said, “My mom would always try to do by any means necessary to make sure that we had what we needed. I definitely do not think I’d be going for this dream had I not seen her pick herself up so many times and keep fighting for us.”
STOPPING AT NEVER: Jones credits her sister for helping her develop a persevering spirit.
Meanwhile, her sister Angie Jefferson, then a teenager, recognized her talent and bought Jones her first running gear — which Jones said in her essay saved her the embarrassment of wearing old clothes.
When Jones moved across the country to go to Louisiana State University, Jefferson was again there for her sister through visits and tearful phone calls.
“Life was hard because the ghosts of my childhood were still there,” Jones wrote in her essay. “But thankfully, so was [Angie] — constantly reminding me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t overcome and survive with God’s help.”
Now, Jefferson serves as Jones’s manager. She encouraged her when Jones faced spine surgery a year ago. “It’s going to be okay,” Jefferson said, according to Jones’s essay. “I have a peace about Dr. Bray and his ability to help you. We are going to pray for God’s favor and trust God to take care of you.”
Jones wrote that she remembers seeing her sister with her prayer journal before a January 2012 race. It gave her a sense of peace. After Jones’s victory, the sisters hugged and cried together.
“It was a moment that words can’t express, a bond that together, can overcome anything,” Jones wrote.
On Monday, before her qualifying race in London, Jones was seen mouthing Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Even after Tuesday’s disappointing result, one suspects she’ll continue to hold onto that truth.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to address the results of Jones’s finals race on Tuesday, August 7.
QUIET STRENGTH: President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s "The Problem We All Live With,” hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
With President Barack Obama’s approval rating sinking to new lows, it appears that many of his supporters may soon go from singing “The Thrill is Gone” to “Hey, hey, hey goodbye” in 2012 given, among other woes, general dissatisfaction with economic recovery efforts.
Calls exist from all sides for the president to do something — something that will finally lead to more jobs at the very least and anything at all to put Republicans, Tea Partiers, and other vocal critics in their places.
He’s obviously working, but what he’s done hasn’t been enough to quell criticisms even from his supporters. And I get it. It’s not that I want to take away my own approval rating points from the president. As much as I can identify the reasons behind why progress in some areas is slow, I just wish he’d take on his loudest detractors toe to toe.
People, figuratively out for blood, want to see muscle, the presidential version of WWE-style flexing. They want to scream “Yeah!” behind their guy as he threatens his rivals. Because there’s one president against many entities of everybody else, it seems like it would be easy beef to toss around. After all, Obama is the president, the big cheese, the one with the power to say a few words to shut everyone up.
Alas, that is not Obama’s approach.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, though, considering that in his inaugural address, he reminded us then that “power grows through its prudent use,” and he has continued to demonstrate such usage every step of the way.
He could’ve taken the path of “shock and awe” to go after Osama bin Laden. A massive airstrike, for example, would’ve made an impressive statement, though others could’ve died as a result. Instead, the president sanctioned a more restrained Navy SEAL mission that happened to be successful.
In response to more recent grievances about the economy, the president launched a bus tour in which he listened — not exactly a nuclear-war move. And amid talk of creating new jobs to no evidence of such, Obama plans to address a joint session of Congress Thursday. It would’ve been Wednesday but plans changed presumably to avoid a conflict with a previously scheduled Republican presidential debate. This occurred as yet another example of Obama accommodating the very people leading the charge against him.
Seriously? With all due respect, Mr. President, what’s really going on?
More than trying to accomplish a country with a growing economy offering jobs to everyone who wants to work, Obama seems to be grasping at something even greater — a more perfect union between Democrats and Republicans. Yeah, I’m rolling my eyes too. But that’s why we elected him: That approach is one of those changes we yearned to believe in.
It’s less noisy, less flashy, and a lot more frustrating to watch. But, if a comparison had to be made, well, it’s probably pretty close to what Jesus would do. That’s not to elevate Obama to deity status; it’s just acknowledging how a follower of Christ would act in trying to be like Him.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Norman Rockwell’s classic painting “The Problem We All Live With” now hangs outside the Oval Office. The painting — which shows U.S. marshals escorting a 6-year-old black girl named Ruby Bridges into a New Orleans elementary school in 1960 as an angry white crowd registers its protest — represents one of our nation’s most powerful moments of racial desegregation. In little Ruby’s simple act of going to school, we see a striking example of quiet strength.
Can we also learn something from President Obama’s repeated gestures of civility and restraint in the face of nasty opposition?
Credit must be given to the president for maintaining a commitment to peace and reconciliation while dodging mud that if one decided to “raise up” would go away so easily. How often have we heard among casual conversations that all Obama needs to do is curse out the GOP one good time to get things done? Not that that would be the holiest approach. We’re called to live holy because Christ is holy. We’re also challenged to hold one another accountable for actions; that’s one of our responsibilities to one another.
Another, as laid out by the prophet Jeremiah, is to avoid boasting in whatever power we have. As president, Obama is a card-carrying member of the bully pulpit, and membership has its privileges. Only, with it comes a certain level of responsibility particularly with the practices of being a Christian.
Nothing represents a firm execution of Christian values more than not exercising the extreme power you might have in a situation in an effort to maintain civility. If it’s a preference on the table, do we want a Christian president who just talks the talk or one who inconveniently walks the walk through hell and high water?
Not only is that change we can believe in; it’s change we already trust as we follow Christ’s example and as we hope our leaders do the same.
CIVIL SERVANT: President Barack Obama shakes hands with Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the State of the Union address earlier this year. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
“The uniqueness of His meekness is too deep to speak / and if you think meekness is weakness try being meek for a week.” – ShaiLinne, “Mic Check 1 2 (featuring Stephen the Levite & Phanatik)”
Let me state a few things up front, so this doesn’t devolve into something from my highly refined, literary alter ego, Captain Obvious (And His Adventures in Missing-The-Point-Ville).
Obviously, President Barack Obama is not Jesus. Our 44th president is not, nor should he be, exempt from criticism. It does not make anyone a bad Christian to publicly criticize his actions or ideas, from either the political right or the left.
So I hope that neither LZ Granderson nor Roland Martin, both professing Christians whom I respect greatly, will take offense when I say that as Christians I think they’re dead wrong about Obama.
Specifically, they’re wrong about how President Obama should respond to House Speaker John Boehner’s latest act of insubordination regarding his upcoming jobs speech.
For the uninitiated, the White House publicly requested a joint session of Congress to assemble on the same day that the Republicans were planning a debate, also surrounding the topic of jobs. In response, Rep. Boehner asked instead for the date to be pushed back, citing security issues.
“Don’t cave to Boehner,” pleaded Martin. Then after the White House rescheduled the date. Granderson lamented Obamas failure to respond to a diss to the presidency, as if the primary responsibility of the President of the United States is to avoid being punked. Then Martin lamented further, claiming that the president’s biggest problem is that no one fears him.
I beg to differ.
The primary responsibility of the president is not to show people he’s in charge. His job is to lead people as effectively and prudently as possible. It’s not that he “needs a spine transplant,” and is therefore incapable of standing up for himself. It’s that when it came to this particular issue at this particular time, he chose a more expedient path of action.
He doesn’t need to show people who’s boss, because he’s already the boss. Posturing is what one does when they’re auditioning for the role campaigning for the job. But as the POTUS, Obama must be the boss. He has a very complex and subjective set of priorities to address and keep in balance at all times. It shouldn’t be a surprise that saving face wouldn’t be the highest thing on his list.
The Uniqueness of Meekness
Consider the example of the Christ Jesus to whom Obama has publicly, repeatedly declared his fidelity.
Jesus often gets a bad rap in our popular culture for being weak and effeminate (which is one of the reasons why preacher Mark Driscoll is so popular, but that’s for another column). If you read your Bible, though, you’ll see that nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus was constantly challenging and confounding both the religious and political establishment. When he felt like street vendors were making a mockery of the faith, he destroyed their operation. There was a reason why they eventually conspired to kill him.
However, Jesus was not the revolutionary that his followers expected. He never made a play for political office. At the point where his followers thought they were on the brink of an armed revolution, Jesus rebuked one of them for resorting to violence. And then he acquiesced to his accusers, knowing full well the result would be a sham of a trial followed by a brutal crucifixion.
If I would’ve been one of Jesus’ disciples during this time, I’m sure the sense of frustration and disappointment in the air would’ve been absolutely palpable.
Why is he letting them DO THIS?!?!
Jesus was not happy about the events that had transpired. A bit earlier, He prayed to the Father for another way out. But in the end, He chose to be obedient, knowing that there was a larger objective that He was given to fulfill, one that required enduring the cross and all of its horrors.
Believing what Christians do about the resurrection, it’s hard to argue with the result.
When Jesus said “blessed are the meek,” in the Sermon on the Mount, the Greek word he used that we translate today as “meek” is one that referred to a sense of a great strength under useful control. It’s like a fierce fire that could warm a great castle, but that could just as easily be reduced to a pilot light. Or like a wild stallion capable of galloping 100 miles an hour, lightly sauntering under the master’s control.
Meekness is anything but weakness.
Strength Under Control
Meekness is keeping your cool because losing it could jeopardize the prize ever set before you.
It’s the difference between I’m-doing-this-because-I-can and I’m-doing-this-because-I-should.
In my opinion, this is the kind of strength under control where President Obama excels. Sure, it was disrespectful for Boehner and House Republicans to respond the way they did. And sure, Obama probably felt more than little vindictive about it. But Obama has a larger set of priorities in mind, among them being re-election in 2012. And acting out of a desire to be vindicated is something that might win the battle but lose the war.
So no, he’s not Jesus. And no, he’s not infallible.
But if you’re a Christian, and you think Obama is weak just because he chose not to flex his muscles over a scheduling conflict, then either you don’t read your Bible, or you haven’t been paying attention.