Hitting Pause on ‘Gangnam Style’

Hitting Pause on ‘Gangnam Style’

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.

It’s fun.

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.

KONY 2012’s Fame Problem

KONY 2012’s Fame Problem

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 
— Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.”

STRAIN OF FAME: Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and director of the "Kony 2012" documentary, suffered a nervous breakdown after the video went viral. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)

If you haven’t already seen it, San Diego-based not-for-profit organization advocacy group Invisible Children recently launched a video campaign called KONY 2012, designed to raise public awareness and attention toward their goal of seeing U.S. forces capture abductor and child-soldier-exploitationist Joseph Kony .

Now that the KONY 2012 video has already reached over 80 million views in a really short time, the campaign has entered the national conversation. As such, there is a commonwealth of informed voices coming out of the woodwork to shoot it down offer informed rebuttals to their strategy. (Here are several such examples, including  two right here on UrbanFaith.)

Most of these criticisms are, rightfully, engaging the biggest questions concerning the issues of what is best for Uganda, the limits of awareness and advocacy work, and the role of NGOs in Central Africa in general, and how these interact with the larger economic and foreign policy interests of the U.S. government. These are some of the most important issues surrounding the KONY 2012 campaign, and should be debated fiercely.

But I have a much more fundamental issue with the campaign, and it’s with the word “famous.”

Taken from the YouTube page, here is IC’s own description of the KONY 2012 campaign:

KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.

Can you see the inherent contradiction there?

Fame can’t be tamed

Now, more than ever, perception is reality. And in today’s hyper-saturated world of media, I’m not sure how possible it is to make Joseph Kony famous without inadvertently celebrating him. When in the history of public activism have people ever rallied around a personified symbol of opposition without raising the profile of that person?

After all, there’s a reason why, if we go back to the obscenity controversies surrounding 2 Live Crew in the early ‘90s, Luke fans and anti-censorship activists never went around wearing T-shirts or putting posters with the images of former attorney and censorship zealot Jack Thompson. They never wanted to give him any more exposure than necessary. (And believe me, if there’s anything Jack Thompson wanted, it was more exposure.)

So even if, after painstaking research and deliberation, one were to decide that another military intervention to remove Joseph Kony would be in everyone’s best interests, it’s still a huge leap in logic to conclude that the best way to make that happen is by affixing posters and stickers to public structures with his name and/or image on them.

Because even if we ignore the potential social costs of such civil disobedience (going in at night and blanketing our cities with propaganda could be viewed as overly aggressive or even illegal depending on how and where you go about it), the question must be asked — is making Kony famous even a good idea?

Famous for being famous

It used to be that fame was desirable as a consequence of living a life of significance or achievement. You wanted to be famous for something. Curing cancer, winning the Super Bowl, writing the great American novel, et cetera. “Baby, remember my name,” right?

Over time it became clear that to be famous in the 21st century doesn’t require any particular skills or achievements. People like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have made whole careers out of being famous for being famous — in their cases, being born into famous families. But now, with the KONY 2012 campaign, what we’re seeing is the term “famous” being used in a totally opposite way, to be famous for something really bad.

If only there were other words in the English language that could express this idea — oh wait, there are. Words like “infamous” and “notorious” do the job quite well. To paraphrase a scene from a favorite Sports Night episode, there’s a big difference between famous and infamous. One’s famous, the other’s infamous. That’s why they have those words.

That’s why this whole “make Kony famous” thing doesn’t sit well with me.

Considering how much Twitter has been incorporated into today’s political process, part of me wonders if the biggest reason why the KONY 2012 went viral so fast was because the name “Kony” makes for a great Twitter hashtag. I know he’s a terrible man and has been brutalizing children for decades, but still. It’s no secret that they deliberately chose an election year for this campaign, because it should be the kind of thing that politicians across the aisle should be able to agree on.

But what happens after 2012, especially if he doesn’t get caught?

I suspect he’ll become the new Che Guevara — just another polarizing, countercultural figure whose actual life will become distorted in order to fit the dominant political or social agenda of the day.

And not to pull a Jesus Juke, but every time I see or hear “make KONY famous” I keep thinking about the Chris Tomlin tune “Famous One.” If Kony is our new standard for fame, then maybe Tomlin needs to record it again under the title, “Famous (For-All-The-Right-Reasons) One.”

Maybe that wouldn’t work on Twitter, but I’m a big guy — I could probably fit it on a XXL T-shirt.

Fame bites back

And just when it seemed this story couldn’t get any more controversial, news broke of the bizarre detaining and subsequent hospitalization of IC founder and filmmaker Jason Russell, who was reported to be wandering naked and yelling obscenities on a Los Angeles street. The latest reports say Russell is suffering from a brief reactive psychosis due to exhaustion and stress and that he’s expected to remain hospitalized for weeks. (I join others in offering up prayer for his recovery.)

In general, I’ve resisted the rather cynical argument that KONY 2012 is more about the filmmakers than the children for which they purport to be advocating. Because even though there is an air of White privilege about the whole thing, it’s undeniable that Invisible Children has been successful at bringing awareness of these complex issues to a generation of affluent teenagers who wouldn’t have known or cared otherwise. On balance, I consider that a good thing.

But given the public nature of this latest indiscretion, Jason Russell is flirting with this new oxymoronic definition of fame himself. And if he was only just an entertainer, you might just chalk it up to the axiom of there being no such thing as bad publicity. But that’s clearly not the case here. Even though Invisible Children is not an explicitly Christian organization, Russell has roots in the Christian establishment. So in the light of eternity, the stakes are a lot higher for how he conducts himself, and it’s clear that he has not been able to handle all of the pressure and attention. And despite Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey’s impassioned plea for folks to give his friend some space, I’m sure that privacy will be much harder to come by now that this has happened.

The good news for Jason Russell is that, whether through the buzz surrounding KONY 2012 or because of the TMZ coverage, he now has an even greater balance of attention currency — and after his recovery he gets to decide how to spend it. Hopefully, it will be used with an honesty and humility different from the slick, professional marketing that we’ve seen so far. Hopefully, we’ll witness an organization so humbled by circumstances that it’s willing to admit its missteps.

That, more than the viral video, would impress me greatly.

But if Invisible Children expects everyone to pretend that nothing has happened and go back to being inspired to stop Joseph Kony … well, it doesn’t understand how fame works these days.

Why ‘Kony 2012’ Misses the Mark

Why ‘Kony 2012’ Misses the Mark

VIRAL SENSATION: In less than a week, the Kony 2012 video campaign was viewed by more than 100 million people, including countless high school and college students.

Like most everyone today, I am wired, wireless, and connected. Like millions upon millions, I also was drawn to the Kony 2012 video. Produced by the San Diego-based human rights organization Invisible Children, the 30-minute documentary shines a light on the brutal crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony (especialy his use of child soldiers) and presents a compelling call for his capture. A week after its release, the video already has been viewed more than 100 million times.

Working on a college campus like Seattle Pacific University requires a certain level of social media capacity and commitment. I guess this is how I justify my constant connection to the hit, trend, and tweeting world. Even for the stodgiest of universities, social media “skillz” have become a type of tool of the trade. So when Kony 2012 showed up on the Facebook pages of some of my students as “the greatest story ever told,” I slowed down from my busy schedule and watched the video.

Yes, I did my part to keep the Kony video “viral,” but my interest transcended the obvious curiosity. In fact, the Ugandan and Central African story was one I personally knew well. Many of my students over several years studied the Lord’s Resistance Army and Uganda. They led group presentations noting the complexity of a 26-year war of organized tribal and religiously affiliated groups. We knew Kony was no longer in Uganda, possibly since 2010, and his army was massively smaller than reported. Furthermore, we also regularly send teams of students around the world. We monitor everything from national security issues to communicating and partnering with indigenous leaders. Seattle Pacific University’s John Perkins Center has also hosted Central African leaders who lead reconciliation ministries throughout the region. Combined with my own multiple travels to Africa over the last 12 years, the Kony video was enlightening and troubling, frustrating and affirming, doubtful and hopeful.

It took a few days but eventually I began to share my thoughts. My bias is present and obvious. I favor a faithful, missional response rooted squarely and firmly in biblical justice. My experience and knowledge of these issues may account for something, but they may also lead to a sort of defensiveness. I own that as well. Holding both bias in one hand and defensiveness in the other, struggle with me to reflect on this global phenomenon.

The Limits of Awareness

Creating awareness in response to atrocities hidden in alleys and brothels, tenements and executive offices is very important. Awareness can lead to the pursuit of further education and activism. Awareness can inspire and create hope in the unseen places of our world. To that end awareness means we rejoice with them that rejoice and mourn with them that mourn.

Awareness can be viral in that it can lead to advocacy and activism. But what happens when those creating awareness simplify the message for easy consumption and unashamedly play to our often insular and over-inflated worldview that we can save the world? You get 100 million hits.

You also get passion-filled and loosely educated constituents attempting to become activists. To that end, we can thank the filmmakers for poorly educating millions on a very complex issue. Maybe “poorly” is too strong of a word. How about lightly educating millions?

But it is here I am reminded of John Perkins’s many sermons on “over-evangelizing the world too lightly.” The same can be said in regards to over-discipling the world too lightly.

Some describe the Kony video as a new form of the TV infomercial, light on facts but heavy on hype. The product being marketed can literally do everything for $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Honestly, I have no idea what $30, a bracelet, a T-shirt, and millions of hits on YouTube produces. I am not sure anyone knows. This is new territory in many ways.

Beyond Slacktivism

What I do know and fear is we run the risk of moving from true advocacy and activism, to what I heard on a recent news show labeled as “slacktivism.” I hope this word never makes it into Webster’s Dictionary, but we can easily assert a definition for this occasion.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Filmmaker Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and the director "Kony 2012," agrees with critics who have called the film oversimplified. "It was deliberately made that way," he says. (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Newscom)

Slacktivism is feeling satisfied that one has contributed to ending injustice in the world because they have pressed the send button. This is in no way to diminish from the importance of giving of money to support a cause or to make light of informing people about a great injustice. And maybe for some people pressing the send button while sipping a latte is a good start. But can we all agree that it should not be the only missional proposition to millions of viewers? If you really have the platform and ability to tell a great story, please encourage us to do more than purchase a kit. If nothing else, we privileged people need that encouragement.

We need the type of encouragement Jesus provided both in word and in deed. The scripture that says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” has made its way into my reflection time more than once this past week.

So maybe we should evaluate the integrity of the Kony 2012 video by its ability to inspire churches to build partnerships with ministry leaders in Uganda, send ministry teams to conferences to learn what God is doing in other parts of the world, and organize students across the nation to form prayer teams for Africa and American relationships. Or maybe the video should simply prompt us to connect with the Central African community in our neighborhood. At the very least, it should challenge us to do more than just send money.

Be aware, and be a giver. But also be educated. Be an advocate. Be an activist.

Be a servant. Then you will be like Jesus.