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.
"Jersey Shore" t-shirts for sale in Seaside Heights, New Jersey
Here at the Jersey Shore, we’re none too fond of the way MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore” portrays our generally bucolic region as a mecca for teenage and young adult hedonism. Now, along comes the Parents Television Council (PTC) with a report that says its portrayals of females, along with those on the network’s other youth-oriented reality shows, are overwhelmingly negative.
PTC found that “only 21.4 percent of language about or directed at females was positive” and only “24 percent of what females said about themselves was positive across all shows” (“Jersey Shore,” “16 and Pregnant,” “Teen Mom 2,” “The Real World“). Additionally, conversations about sex on these shows rarely included talk of virginity (0.2%), contraceptives (1.4%) and STDs (2%).
On one level, this news is unsurprising. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the network and from this genre of television. But two of the shows, “Teen Mom 2” and “ and “16 and Pregnant” have been conditionally lauded by feminists like Slate editor Jessica Grose.
In a 2010 blog post, Grose said, “There is actually data to support the notion that a dramatic, narrative show like ‘16 and Pregnant’ could make adolescent girls more likely to use contraception,” and in a June 2011 post, she quoted data that said watching these shows makes people more likely to support legal abortion.
“For all the pro-choicers out there who are still complaining that the fecund high schoolers of ‘16 and Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom’ glamorize teen pregnancy—you should stop complaining. The elevation of the stars of these shows might help abortion remain legal for future generations,” Grose concluded, in what sounded to me like a slap in the face to both teen moms and their children.
The Jersey Shore "As Seen on MTV"
The popularity of reality television among young viewers has “generated greater interest among researchers and critics” with both groups “working to comprehend viewer motivations for watching as well as the impact of a genre rooted in stereotypical representations of gender and class, simplistic portrayals of social problems, and a disproportionate appeal to young audiences,” PTC’s report said.
Karen Dill, Director of the Media Psychology Doctoral Program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, is quoted as saying the stories media tells “make up much of our shared cultural ideals and therefore shape how boys and girls [feel] about themselves and their peers.”
In her 2010 post, Grose wisely noted the mixed message MTV communicates with its reality TV lineup.
“While MTV aims to send a good message with earnest shows about teen motherhood, the message gets muddled when it is in the context of the network’s other reality programming. Commercials for the current season of ’16’s’ sister show, ‘Teen Mom,’ ran around the same time as the reality juggernaut ‘Jersey Shore,’ which depicted consequence-free carousing. Why, a teenager may wonder, is [’16 and Pregnant’] Jenelle’s beach-bunny act so terrible when it looks like Snooki has so much fun behaving in a similar manner?”
Why indeed? And why, I wonder, do some feminists offer even conditional support for shows that portray young women and young mothers in such a negative light?
What do you think?
Is there anything redemptive to be found amidst MTV’s mixed messages or is its reality TV line-up pure trash?
Before I begin, I want to make sure that you all know I am 100 percent against what Kanye West did at MTV’s Video Music Awards last week. Storming the stage during Taylor Swift’s victory speech to rebuke the audience for not selecting Beyonce — and, in effect, for selecting Taylor Swift — was not cool.
But, like many people who watched that painful drama unfold on the air and then on Twitter and Facebook in the minutes that followed, I felt there had to be more to the story than just an intoxicated rapper making a scene on national TV.
Every now and then a week comes along in pop culture that leaves us feeling entertained, inspired, and hopeful. And then there are those weeks that leave us completely befuddled, scratching our heads in confusion while mumbling, “What is this world coming to?” Last week was one of those weeks. Here is a sample of some of the pop culture questions that left us stumped.
You’ve got to wonder if Disney is starting to have second thoughts about producing a film with an African American princess. A few weeks ago we told you about the drama surrounding the upcoming release of The Princess and the Frog, a new animated film featuring Disney’s first black princess. Well, people still aren’t quite sure what to do with Princess Tiana.
First there was a bit of hubbub over her name and occupation, which were ultimately changed from the supposedly slave-sounding “Maddy” the maid to “Tiana” the chef. Then, as The New York Times reports, there’s the controversy over setting the fairy tale against the backdrop of New Orleans and the fact that the story finds Tiana (spoiler alert) spending ample screen time as an amphibian. Now TheRoot.com has raised the conversation to a whole new level, questioning whether we need another princess in the first place. Writer Monique Fields muses, “Whatever in the world do princesses do? More importantly, how do they get paid? Real life is not a fairy tale, and few folks live happily ever after. So just what are we telling our girls when we dress them up in frilly dresses, dust them with makeup, and put glitter in their hair before they really know who they are?”
While we can grant that some girls do get stuck in the princess narrative, spending their lives searching for Prince Charming, doesn’t it feel a bit like Fields is missing the point? The fantastic nature of these stories quite intentionally inspires a sense of whimsy in young women. Girls are supposed to be left asking what if a pumpkin wasn’t just a pumpkin? And what if people weren’t always what they seem? In that world, a frog might be a prince. Candlesticks might actually dance. Perhaps something good we can’t see or touch or hear is moving all around us all the time. Besides, Disney has never pretended to peddle realism.
Whose House? Run’s House
Just when it felt like the only black family on television lived in the White House, Rev Run and the rest of the Simmons family are back for a sixth season of Run’s House on MTV. Catch the premiere episode on Monday night (10 p.m. ET/PT) when the family takes us on their Hawaiian vacation. We’re curious to see if this will be the episode where Rev Run and his wife Justine deal with their son’s recent arrest or if we’ll have to wait until later in the season to see how JoJo is punished. The oldest son from Rev Run’s first marriage and aspiring rapper, Joseph “Jo Jo” Simmons, was arrested last month for drug possession and resisting arrest but was quickly released on his own recognizance. Guess we’ll have to wait and see. Until Monday, check out the following preview for the new season:
It looks like the Carrie Prejean saga may finally come to an end. On Thursday, Donald Trump and Miss California USA pageant officials officially fired the Miss USA contestantciting failure to uphold her contractual duties. Despite Prejean’s insinuation that the decision was made because of the political controversy surrounding her stance on same-sex marriage, Keith Lewis, the executive director of Miss California USA, tried to remain clear that Prejean’s termination had nothing to do with her beliefs. “This was a decision based solely on contract violations including Ms. Prejean’s unwillingness to make appearances on behalf of the Miss California USA organization,” he stated. Prejean told TMZ.com she was “shocked,” which left us wondering if she’s the only person who didn’t see this coming. The entire state of California is embroiled in a heated debate over gay marriage with the passing of Proposition 8 last November and the recent decision of the California Supreme Court to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage. After publicly taking such an unpopular position on the gay marriage issue, and further aggravating the situation by joining forces with the National Organization for Marriage, was she really surprised that pageant officials leaped at the chance to let her go? It’s a shame she may not have carried out her responsibilities faithfully, at least for the sake of being above reproach. Did all the attention from traditional marriage supporters go to her head? In any event, this now gives us time to get reacquainted with that other statuesque blond. You know, the one who actually won the Miss USA pageant. If only we could remember her name.
Obama’s Gospel Tribute
When President Barack Obama starts jonesing for a little musical entertainment, all he has to do is say the word and the line of A-list singers ready to serenade him stretches from the White House to the Washington Monument. But as of Tuesday, President Obama’s access to instant personal entertainment just got even easier. On Tuesday, Central South Distributors released a special tribute CD to honor the first African-American POTUS called A Gospel Tribute to President Obama. The album features Israel Houghton, Juanita Bynum, and Donnie McClurkin, among others. In a tribute to First Lady Michelle Obama, Kelly Price and Shirley Murdock also appear, singing “The Curtain’s Raised.” Check out the CD at Amazon or ilovegospelmusic.com.
Facebook’s Taking Names
For all the Facebook addicts out there, get your fingers ready. On Saturday at 12:01 a.m. the popular social networking site will allow users to claim their own personal Facebook usernames and URLs. With a potential 200 million people competing simultaneously to stake a claim in cyberspace by snatching up their own name, you’re going to need to type fast if you want to be able to “own” www.facebook.com/YourNameHere. We’re not exactly tech savvy enough to know what all this means, but we’ve heard that The Daily Beast is comparing this massive domain grab to the Oklahoma Territory land run of 1889, minus the horses and dust. If you are on Facebook, be sure to become a fan of UrbanFaith. We promise we won’t poke.