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.
If you’ve never seen the smash viral hit video “Gangnam Style,” and you missed the recent TV appearances by Korean pop star PSY, let me describe it for you.
Take the silliness of Monty Python, the materialist accoutrements (and shiny suits) from P. Diddy, and the outlandish dance moves of MC Hammer, filter it through the Korean pop oeuvre, then multiply exponentially through internet memes… you know what, I can’t do it.
Just stop and watch it already.
(DISCLAIMER — it’s pretty tame overall, but still somewhat uncouth. The chorus says, “hey sexy lady!” and features shots of Korean female yoga-clad derriere. And there’s a random dude with a cowboy hat doing pelvic thrusts in an elevator. It’s a little insane.)
VIRAL SENSATION: South Korean pop star PSY has set off a worldwide craze with the music, dance, and humor of his “Gangnam Style” video, which has received more than 230 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Wikipedia)
In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, PSY explains the meaning of the song, and came off like a music veteran should – calm, self-assured, and articulate. But there’s no way he could’ve known how far it would go. More than 230 million YouTube views later, the song’s signature phrase, “Oppan Gangnam Style,” has joined the likes of “ayyy Macarena” and “u can’t touch this” as iconic lyrics to dance crazes that people find inexplicably irresistible. (Even SNL couldn’t resist.)
Naturally, it’s already attracted plenty of imitation. And since there are evangelical Christians who love to imitate (seriously, 50 Shades of Grace?), let this post be a public service announcement:
To all the church creative teams out there considering doing a parody of “Gangnam Style,” please don’t. Without a sizable Korean presence in your production, it could very easily come off as racially insensitive, corny, or just in generally poor taste (the Deadly Viper controversy comes to mind).
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it.
So here are five lessons about creative ministry we can learn from the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon:
1. Top-shelf entertainment is inherently cross-cultural. No longer is something limited in scope to boundaries of nationality, race, or even language. As a matter of fact, the best films and literature freely borrow and interpret from a variety of styles and cultures. Music is no different. Just as Americans have embraced the Japanese word and concept of “karaoke,” so too have plenty of Koreans adopted mannerisms from American pop culture, including hip-hop. And there are plenty of really good Asian emcees, including several who are Christ followers, like Jin (formerly of Ruff Ryders), and Korean-born Brooklynite HeeSun Lee.
This truth is pretty self-evident, however many creative Christians fall on either extreme of cultural myopia (only being interested in your own culture) or cultural appropriation (taking elements of the culture in an ignorant or disrespectful manner). Believers wanting their work to engage with their broader community should take this to heart. We can’t run away from other cultures, and we can’t be irresponsible with our cultural engagement.
2. Today’s pop culture is dominated by visuals. “Gangnam Style” is a perfect example of this. Without the video, the song, catchy as it is, would not be the juggernaut that it is. This is why, as an artist or a band, you can’t just have a certain sound, you’ve also got to have a certain look to go with it. This is also one of the reasons why church creative teams are beginning to invest more time and energy into set design, because the ambiance makes a difference.
While I’m on this topic …
3. Production values matter. I can’t say this enough. Many YouTube videos by Christians have clever ideas and funny concepts, but they’re marred by poor lighting and bad editing. A large part of the reason why “Gangnam Style” is popular is because it looks fantastic. PSY and his crew went to a lot of effort with the various outfits, locales, etc.
Speaking of which …
4. Audiences appreciate commitment. What sets this video apart from the millions of others like it is that it’s really funny. Improv coaches believe one of the keys to comedy is commitment. PSY didn’t just do a few silly things and call it a day. He went all out. Rapping in a tuxedo while confetti gets in his mouth. Or in a public bath (complete with uncomfortable elderly onlooker). PSY is not necessarily the most attractive, physically fit guy out there, but he’s likable in this video because of the lengths he’s willing to go to deliver his message. And because of that, many people received it.
Which brings me to …
5. Great songs unify people. I was reminded by this awhile back when Michael Jackson passed away. One of the downsides of this era we live in, with the proliferation of DIY pop stars and a million different TV channels, is that audiences are so heavily segmented that there are very few things that a LOT of people enjoy together. Thus, viral videos like “Gangnam Style” are filling the void left by top 40 radio and TV shows like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and, if you want to back even further, The Ed Sullivan Show. “Gangnam Style” isn’t necessarily great music per se, but so much of the fun is that so many people love it. When my phone rings out “Gangnam Style” while I’m on the bus, I get knowing nods and grins. It’s like being in a secret club.
And that sense of belonging is, unfortunately, lost in some evangelical circles. There are direct economic incentives for worship leaders to write, record and sing their own music. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I think we all need to remember the power that music has to unify. Few things are more healing than being in an unfamiliar church environment and hearing a familiar song.
So let these principles occupy your mental space as you try to deal with having “Gangnam Style” stuck in your head, and enjoy this latest viral video hit.
Just make sure, if you have kids, that you use a little discretion. You don’t want to have to explain why your 4-year-old loves saying, “heyyyyy, sexy lady.”
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.
FAREWELL 'DEAR LEADER': Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean dictator who died on Dec. 17 at age 69, will be remembered for turning his impoverished country into a nuclear-weapons player. (Photo: Kcna/ZUMA Press/Newscom)
Since I am the daughter and my children are the grandsons of a North Korean refugee, the plight of North Korea is a frequent topic of discussion in our family. My sons are 9 years old and younger, but they have already formed strong opinions about the leaders of the nation that was once their grandfather’s homeland. Just a week ago, my 6-year-old prayed the following: “God please bless everyone, except Kim Jong-Il.”
When we asked him why he prayed in this particular way, he replied, “He’s a bad, bad man. I don’t love him. I hate him.”
It doesn’t matter how many times we try to tell them that God wants us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). My kids don’t understand what could possibly motivate a man to ignore the suffering of so many people that he is supposed to be leading and caring about.
When I heard the news on Monday evening about Kim Jong-Il’s passing, I found myself shedding tears not of sadness but of anger toward him, toward his father Kim Il-Sung, and towards all those in power in a nation that invests more in its nuclear and military armament than in feeding its starving population. And I realized that I am much closer to my kids’ sentiments than I might care to admit.
I think of my father, who was 13 years old when he left his home country on foot, traveling with his own father and his brother in order to avoid being conscripted into the escalating conflict between the Communist-leaning north and democratic-leaning south halves of Korea. Their trip took 15 days and included a 40-minute harrowing venture across chest-high, freezing water to cross the Taedong River in Pyongyang at night. (You can view an amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning photo here of Korean refugees trying to climb across the remains of the main bridge over the Taedong. This was taken on the same exact day that my father left North Korea: December 4, 1950.)
When he departed from home that frigid December night, 61 years ago, my dad said goodbye to his mother who’d stayed behind to try to convince her brothers to also head south, and assumed he’d be back home in a week or two. But he never saw his mother again. Theirs is a story all too common amongst Koreans in my father’s generation; countless numbers of Korean families were personally affected or were close to someone devastated by the effects of the Korean War, which left behind a tragic legacy of separated or permanently altered families. Officially, the Korean War is actually still ongoing; certainly in the minds and hearts of the Korean people, this conflict and its far-reaching personal consequences have remained far from forgotten.
My dad, who just turned 74 years old, is pessimistic about the prospect of any type of positive change in North Korea. He tells me, “My main worry is for the people who are innocent victims, all those people who just happened to be born in North Korea and who live there. No other country wishes to unify Korea or engage in any risky attempts to overthrow the regime. This all means I won’t be able to see any bright future in North Korea in my lifetime. It’s so, so sad!”
I will be honest: I cannot conjure even a shred of remorse or sadness about Kim Jong-Il’s passing. Although he personally had nothing to do with the circumstances leading to my dad’s family story, in my mind he represents the very worst of mankind, and how its evils can deliver countless decades of misery into the lives of ordinary human beings.
There is a part of me that is even glad for Kim’s passing, if only because it brings the tragic story of the Korean peninsula back into present-day focus. Regardless of what we may think of North Korea’s past and present leaders, regardless of whether we are of Korean descent or not, we all need to be aware that the North Korean story is not just one of a seemingly endless reign of despotic rulers, but also of countless numbers of families experiencing decades upon decades of grief and sadness.
I am grateful for organizations such as Crossing Borders and LiNK, which are both involved in the dangerous and critical work of assisting and advocating for North Koreans refugees, and The Saemsori Project, which is helping to reunite long-separated Korean families. (You can see Saemsori’s interview with my father on YouTube here.) These organizations may not be able to do anything to ensure humane leadership in the post-Kim Jong-Il era. But the work they are doing has eternal value as they strive for North Korean refugees and immigrants to experience both freedom and family anew.
Meanwhile, I will strive to teach my sons that the best way to “love the enemy” in North Korea is not to embrace hatred, but to support organizations such as these, and to continue to pray and press toward a future in which the North Koreans there and abroad experience no more dying, no more crying, no more hurting. It may not happen in my father’s lifetime, or in my lifetime, or even in my kids’ lifetime. But one day, hopefully sooner than later, we know that the old order will pass away, in North Korea and anyplace else where tyranny currently reigns over liberty.
And as we pray for justice to roll down, may we never forget the millions upon millions who have suffered, lost, and perished along the way.
Helen is currently editing her father’s memoir about his life as a North Korean refugee living in the U.S.
HAWAII'S SON: President Obama Aloha Bobblehead dolls are among the touristy souvenirs available at gift shops like this one in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
The word “Hawaii” conjures up scenes of grass skirts, surfboards, gorgeous beaches, and volcanoes. Recently, images of our current President have been added to that list. Whether one is for or against his style of leadership, one thing is certain: it is unfamiliar. His strong centrist stand is not a popular modus operandi of past presidents, and for this reason it garners attention — unless, you have the “aloha” in you. For those, like myself, who were raised within the group-centric culture of Hawaii, President Barack Obama’s brand of leadership is nothing new.
Those from the “mainland,” what those of us from Hawaii call the continental U.S., rarely understand how truly different Hawaii is from the rest of the United States, particularly for people of color. It is one of the few (and perhaps only) places the European Standards for culture, beauty, power, and “justice” are not in effect. They are replaced by the East Asian and native Polynesian standards that reach back farther in history than the United States of America as country. These standards were social norms I was first introduced to, much like the president. I was torn from my Pacific Ocean-bound paradise as I was entering my tweens. My father’s military career took us from our colorful, diversity-filled oasis to the Midwest cosmos of corn, soybeans, and snow.
How significant is being raised in such a truly diverse, non-Eurocentric, group-driven, island-based culture?
It is significant enough that any person of color who is socialized in Hawaii and then leaves must go through a process of re-learning American race relations within their own group (colorism) and in relation to mainstream American culture. They also have another task: learning their new place on the racial totem pole.
I can say from experience it is a very ugly, cruel, bewildering process. I spent my early childhood on Oahu. Once you go through it, you know it, and you behave accordingly. That is why I will admit to smiling whenever I hear the president pronounce Hawai‘i properly; it’s done deliberately. Hearing “Hawai‘i,” “luau,” and “ukulele” pronounced properly makes me giddy these days.
COMING HOME: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for a 2009 vacation. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
To be sure, Hawaii is not free of racialized class structures, and it harbors its own brand of racism; yet, this too takes a different strain. It is far less disruptive to the almighty Group-with-a-capital-G to simply ignore members it finds undesirable. The Group limits interaction with them and is as polite and distant as is practical when its members must interact with Outsiders. In this way, everyone inside and outside of the Group may save face. “Saving face” is another important East Asian tenant. While this is just as wrong, burning crosses, throwing tomatoes, hate marches, and interesting costumes are not as conducive to “perpetual harmony.”
The “East Asian Cultural standard” I refer to is an amalgamation of major tenants of traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture. It is the cultural norm of Hawaii along with native Polynesian culture. Together they create an entirely different American experience. It is an experience that challenges mainland perceptions of race, class, and gender relations.
Hawaiian popular and native culture is group centric. In the native culture (keep in mind, it is not monolithic) the idea of “ohana” comes to mind. Translated simply as “family” in true practice, it means far more than that. A great representation of the highest form of “ohana” is what the body of Christ is called to be and what the Christian church is to be, as modeled in the New Testament book of Acts.
The Group always comes before the individual. Life doesn’t revolve around being a special snowflake. Rather, it is more important to lend your talents to the betterment of something above and beyond yourself. This is not a popular sentiment in mainstream American culture, where our love of the anti-hero rings loud and clear.
For instance, a state like Texas, the home of former President George W. Bush, as well as current GOP presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry, is a great example of the “Cult of Individualism” that is a part of the mainland American consciousness. This mentality is the polar opposite of the Group/ohana mindset. When Gov. Perry subtly implied in 2009 that secession could be a possibility for Texas if things didn’t change in Washington, it reaffirmed the image of the Lone Star State as a collection of cowboys (and girls) who answer to no one. This isn’t to say that focusing on the individual is detrimental. But it’s no secret that the worship of self can cause far-reaching negative consequences throughout society, a fact the Bible and secular history have made abundantly clear.
In the case of President Obama, some say he’s too willing to compromise and that he doesn’t assert himself enough when it comes to playing the political game. In a recent, widely discussed Washington Post essay, White House reporter Scott Wilson charged President Obama with being “the loner president,” an isolated politician who prefers policy over people in Washington. “This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors,” Wilson observed. “There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.”
But what his critics see as a flaw might actually be a strength, at least from the perspective of ohana. It could be that his great skill in being so centrist (to his party’s and the GOP’s annoyance) comes from the ability to set his gaze solidly on The Group and put its needs before his own, as a matter of upbringing and personal conviction. While caught in the political throes of his own party, the GOP, and the Tea Party, he has delivered the tow-the-line stance he promised during his 2008 campaign — perhaps too well, for the mainland.
In this case, we — the American people, in certain instances — are President Obama’s Group, not necessarily the Democratic Party.
So, why is this a problem?
Did we not elect our congressional leaders, in good faith, to put our needs before donkeys and elephants, red and blue, lobbyists and Wall Streeters? Didn’t we ask them to put aside their own personal (often financial) interests and fight for all people to have a chance at living the “American Dream”
MAN OF THE PEOPLE: President Obama in 2010 with the staff of Island Snow, a shaved-ice shop in Kailua, Hawaii. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Newscom)
If Congress practiced the concept of “ohana” according to its popular understanding and placed the Group ahead of personal gain, Washington, D.C., and America in general, could become a very different place. That’s not to say everyone in the Group would receive what they desire. However, the Group as a whole would be better off than, say, a privileged 1% of the Group at the expense of the other 99%. The tyranny of the majority is tempered by a hint of the Confucian principles of the Five Ideal Relationships: (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend. Within this environment, there is an understood expectation that those that are submitted to will take care of those that submit to them. These obligations are taken seriously; otherwise one risks dishonor and the loss of his status in society.
In this context, political bias would have to kneel before the desires of the Ultimate Group: the American people. Lobbyists, Unions, Big Business, and personal gain would have to wait their turns as the needs of the American “ohana” — the American family — came first.
We the people — America, the Group — would always come first.
That is a Washington I would love to say “aloha” to.