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.
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.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO KEY AND PEELE: Beyond being funny, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele's irreverent comedy shines a light of truth on African American life.
In Part 1, we examined the connection between Comedy Central’s Key & Peele and the tension that Black men feel between being accepted by society and being true to one’s self.
Here in Part 2, we’re going to take a look at several Key & Peele sketches, get at some of the underlying issues behind the comedy, and see what biblical truths can be applied to them, particularly as they relate to the lives of young men like Trayvon Martin.
(Before I go any further, a DISCLAIMER: Key & Peele is rated TV-14, and while there are very few sexual references, there is a fair amount of profanity, albeit mostly bleeped out. As always, use discretion when viewing clips. You don’t want your 5-year-old repeating this stuff — or your 45-year-old boss, for that matter.)
(Also, let me say this for the record — despite the adult content, I think each of these sketches is absolutely hilarious. No, they’re not for children. But they’re funny nonetheless. In the following paragraphs I do a lot of cultural exegesis, breaking down the principles behind the humor. But never let it be said I don’t think it’s funny.)
“Yo Mama Has Health Problems,” is a depiction of a doctor with an Indian accent, trying to give a consultation to a younger Black guy with his posse standing behind. Every time the doctor tries to engage the guy in conversation about his mother’s failing health, dude has some juvenile comeback with which to delight his friends. Riffing on the classic pastime of playing the dozens, this sketch demonstrates the communication breakdown that happens to people with misplaced expectations and different cultural traditions.
The brilliance of the sketch is in its metaphysics — that it’s one long joke about people joking with another. The twist at the end is when the doctor figures out how to play along, and does so — with shockingly inappropriate results.
This sketch makes you laugh and cringe — often at the same time — because few things are more destructive to a relationship than a failed attempt at humor. This is not to say that we shouldn’t joke around with one another, but rather, we should understand how and when to do it. Gilbert Arenas had to learn this the hard way — there are times when jokes are not an appropriate way to make a point. After all, there’s a reason why, in Proverbs 26:18-19, careless jokesters are compared to arsonists.
What’s especially poignant is, a few minutes in when Jordan Peele’s wisecracking character lets down his guard, his acknowledgement rings true. Many people, Black White or otherwise, use humor as a coping mechanism. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is in context. When others around us take their cues from our sketchy behavior, that creates misunderstandings of epic proportions. If those misunderstandings are propagated long enough, you end up with people resorting to smartphone apps to see if they’re allowed to say the n-word.
If we as Black folks want to help edify and build up others outside of our culture, it’s going to require, at times, that we rein in our sense of humor. Not mortally cripple it, just put some good boundaries around it. Otherwise we’ll continue to have tragic episodes of miscommunication, and the net result will be fewer people willing to take the risk of a potential offense for the sake of gaining greater clarity and perspective from someone outside their cultural context.
Given our nation’s overall racial divide, it’s clear that we as Christians need to share as much perspective and gain as much clarity as possible. It’s just one way to help our nation avoid more Trayvon-like incidents.
In the book of Acts, there is a profound story regarding Peter, a leader in the early church, and a vision he has regarding a blanket of food that the Lord told him was no longer considered to be unclean. Space constraints don’t permit me to fully break this down, but that vision leads Peter down a path of greater love and acceptance for outsiders.
This sketch reminds me of that story, except that the cultural model is inverted. Instead of ethnic-specific foods being outlawed, they’re actually preferred. And rather than exclude each other, we see Jordan and Keegan trying to outdo one another, proving their in-group status by ordering more and more “authentic” soul food, which comically regresses into more bizarre and less-edible fare.
There are many underlying truths in this sketch. The obvious one is that men are often hypercompetitive, and African American men are no exception. Another is that soul food, while an important component of African American culture, sometimes lacks in nutritional value.
This makes sense if you factor in the role slavery had in restricting the culinary habits of Black people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blacks rarely had access to choice cuts of meat, so had to adapt by eating the parts of animals that their White masters found undesirable.
Indeed, it seems as though ingenuity as a survival instinct has become a defining characteristic for African Americans; the history of hip-hop, for example, is full of people who took undesirable, marginal or forgotten elements of music and turned them into something original and innovative (graffiti, turntable scratching, sampling, etc.).
The downside, though, is that just because something is culturally authentic doesn’t make it good. It’s no wonder that a people who were subjugated and dehumanized for centuries might internalize behavioral ways of coping that are less than truly healthy. This dynamic is what is satirized by K&P by the pursuit of food that sounds less than edible.
My favorite moment of the “Soul Food” sketch is at the end, where Keegan says, in response to the server’s offer of gravy: “What’s a cellar door without gravy? It’s not food.”
Isaiah 55:1-2 calls out to people in this situation, who find themselves grabbing plate after plate of stuff that isn’t really food. Isaiah proclaims the compassion of the Lord, who wants His people to be satisfied with goodness and settle for nothing less.
Rather than chasing only what is culturally authentic, as Christians we should chase after what is anointed and Godly. Rather than competing for cultural acceptance, we should be spurring each other on toward love and good behavior, worrying less of what others think than of what the Lord thinks. That’s true for Black men, yes, but it’s true for everybody.
* * *
So now, in two of these K&P sketches, we’ve seen several aspects of Black masculinity on display, and identified a few solutions that can help our young Black men continue to develop and make the world a better place for all the other Trayvons out there.
But what about our relationships with women? There seems to be issues at play that affect our interactions with each other and with the opposite sex. Whether male or female, this is something worth paying attention to.
So make sure to check out Part 3 of this series, where we delve into the final sketch of our sample.
DOUBLE DOSE: Comedy Central stars Michael Key and Jordan Peele bring racial stereotypes into focus by addressing them head on.
Fans of racially themed sketch comedy had been relegated to watching reruns of Chappelle’s Show and In Living Color until last February when Comedy Central unveiled their latest breakout hit,Key & Peele.
Featuring biracial comedians (and Mad TV alumni) Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Key & Peele‘s thematic M.O. is to dive deep into the racial ambiguity and complexity of modern pop culture, mine for nuggets of truth, and then exaggerate them into overdrive. The result is a peculiar kind of inspired silliness that is not quite as crass as Chappelle’s Show or as mean spirited as The Boondocks, but that still works as effective satire.
The show maintains a broad enough appeal to hit on other topics (like this bit on reality chef competitions), but the core of the show is still in racial issues. Because their biracial identities form the basis of the comedy, many of the vignette premises involve the convergence of Black and White stereotypes and cultural mannerisms (like this short bit with mic checks). And the funniest and most effective sketches are those where Keegan and Jordan find themselves temporarily ditching their mainstream, respectable personas in order to demonstrate how authentically Black they are — which usually means subtly, gradually, and outrageously outdoing each other. Whether they’re in a dramatic stage production, in a restaurant ordering soul food, or even just walking down the street, the results are usually hilarious.
What sketches like these tend to illustrate, though, is the dichotomous tension that a lot of African American men tend to feel, one that’s heightened for those of mixed-race heritage like Key and Peele. People use different words to express it, but it’s essentially still the same struggle — the meek, acceptable, responsible Black man versus the militant, flamboyant, outspoken Black man. Sellout versus Soldier. Punk versus Player.
(Back in the day, it might have been Martin vs. Malcolm, but now it’s just as much Barack versus Luther, the presidential anger translator. Apparently K&P nailed this dynamic so well that even President Obama himself thinks it good.)
But whether spoken or unspoken, as Black men we tend to feel trapped between those two extremes. We want to handle our business and rise to the highest echelons of success, but we don’t want to forget where we came from. We want to have nice things and inhabit nice spaces, but we don’t want to abandon our cultural identity, one that has roots in turmoil and struggle.
And this tension is a major component of the outrage over the Trayvon Martin case. After all, Trayvon died in an upscale neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. And he died wearing a hoodie. Obviously, the hoodie is nowhere near an exclusively Black piece of apparel. These days, everyone wears them, from high school students to upscale retirees. You can buy suit jackets with hoodies, for crying out loud. So the underlying question that the Trayvon Martin case brings up (after the obvious one of “why did it take so long to arrest Zimmerman?”) is why is an African American teenager in a hoodie automatically considered a threat?
BENEATH THE HOOD: Trayvon Martin's hoodie spoke to the tension between repression and authenticity embodied by many Black men, and also satirized in Key and Peele's comedy.
Out of this tumble a Pandora’s Box of troubling questions that Black parents have been wrestling with for decades, all connected to young Black men and the presumption of class based on public appearance. There are the philosophical/theoretical questions like, is it best to be as conservative as possible or should we keep it as “real” as possible?Were Geraldo Rivera’s comments those of an out-of-touch bigot, or a compassionate pragmatist? And then there are the more practical, nuts-and-bolts types of questions. How can we tell what gang members are dressing like nowadays? Should we watch The Wire? Which trends are just stylish and which are thuggish? Does it matter which way a cap is tilted? What about certain colors or team logos? Does jewelry matter? Baggy pants, or saggy pants? What about skinny jeans that sag?
You’ll notice that the above question mainly ignored the obvious answer to the question of why Trayvon was considered a threat — centuries worth of institutionalized and internalized racism. This answer, while obvious, does little to help address the practical struggles of being — or raising — a young Black male today, to the lament of Black mothers everywhere.
As believers in Christ, some of the questions that should matter most are, “what does the Word say about this issue?” and “how can I apply it to my cultural context?” These are often hard questions to answer, and even harder to have healthy dialogue over, because of the seriousness and tension surrounding these issues. Sometimes, you just need to laugh a little bit before you can really engage.
Enter Key and Peele.
These two talented comedians have provided an ample supply of case studies into postmodern African American male culture. So let’s laugh, and let’s learn. Let’s look at the issues, and see what the Bible may have to say about it.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we look in-depth at several hilarious Key and Peele sketches, examine the underlying cultural issues at play, and then apply some biblical understanding.
President Obama reads letters from the public, as he sits at his desk in the Treaty Room Office in the Private Residence. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza, 2009.)
Now that we’ve all had a chance to settle down and let this most recent and unfortunate situation fade into the mists of past news cycles, I just wanted to humbly offer a few words of advice. In the future, please refrain from telling the truth about racial situations when asked. Clearly some of us in America aren’t quite ready for it yet. In fact, many are still trying to come to grips with the fact that you got elected in the first place.
Now, between you and me, we both know that the existence of your presidency doesn’t erase the centuries-long tradition of racism in America. Many of us — or our parents and grandparents — can still remember the days when segregation was an institution and a daily fact of life … not just a word waved around in the month of February.
You ran on the promises of hope, change, and a unified America. When I saw you speak at the Democratic Convention in 2004, I thought to myself, there’s the man who should be leading the country … and the thought was so incredibly far-fetched at the time. Even after you announced your candidacy, it seemed impossible to even dream that it would actually result in having you as our President. When Joe Biden uttered those ill-chosen words, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy …” we knew what he was trying to say, but it underscored the delicacy of the racial situation these days.
But you have to admit that we’ve certainly come a long way in these past few years, though I know we’re not there yet. However, in these critical early months of your administration, it’s important that you recognize the need for the masses to hold on to their warm, fuzzy feelings about your victory last November — not to mention their need to keep their racial blinders firmly in place. Is the danger of being stopped for “driving while Black” still a reality in 2009? Of course not! And do young Black men and women still get watched more closely in the store than their White counterparts? No! That is all completely behind us! Let’s move on; after all, slavery was a long time ago. We’re equal now!
Sure, we’ll hear the reports of the occasional group of school kids turned away from a swimming pool in the Philly suburbs … but that wasn’t a racial issue, that pool was simply too crowded. And we know that the situation with Professor Gates had nothing to do with race (not in this day and age). If Professor Gates would’ve just taken a deep breath and showed the proper respect to Sergeant Crowley, understanding that police officers seldomly treat people differently based on the color of their skin, there would be no need for your beer summit today.
Let us continue to believe that racism is dead in America, and that racial profiling is no longer an issue in our cities. Be patient with us, Mr. President … perhaps in a few years we’ll be able to engage in open, honest dialogues about race and racism. But for now, let’s just keep it our little secret. Give my best to Michelle and the kids.