Gangnam Agonistes

In other apocalyptic news, we see that “Gangnam Style” became earlier today the first video ever to attract one billion hits on YouTube. (That’s “one thousand million” in Oxford, or “one hundred crore” in Bombay.) We decided it was time to look at it ourself, having ignored K-pop these last twelve years. We were impressed.

We wrote something about the Korean popular music scene from Seoul in anno 2000, in the moment when Park Ji-yoon’s “Sung In Shik” (Coming of Age) was playing on every city radio. It struck us then as the catchiest throbbing dance tune of all time. But with lyrics that ought not to be translated, for the sweet willowy innocent young songstress, already popular in that teen mode, had become megastar by makeover into a Bad Girl. We could not get the tune out of our head; even while reflecting upon the moral devastation it was working.

Only a generation before, the juke boxes of Seoul had been loaded with classical, especially strings. We wrote then of Korea as “the land of the Baroque cello.” But time flies.

The pop scenes of Korea, China, & Japan were among the journalistic topics of our fin-de-siècle Far Eastern tour, which included a brief encounter with the Taipei Mandopop sensation, Elva Hsiao, then still living with her mother. She had gone from foreign-student visa issues in some forelorn Vancouver community college to the top of the Hong Kong charts, overnight. Her hit, “Qiangwei” (Rose) was then playing on the pop TV channel in every hotel room down the Western Pacific Rim; & she wove a spell even over us with such passages of Sinitic femme-fatale bilingualism as:

          Zhi jue ni shi ge leng jing ai hen shen de ren, do you know —
          You don’t know?

Unfortunately we lost our bloc-notes from that journey, so can no longer contrive search terms for several mostly Red Chinese singers, whose minor hits were musically interesting, whose videos were actually in good taste, & who may therefore by now have sunk into oblivion.

It was fun at the time for a person rather poorly acquainted with Western pop music, to try to make sense of its Asian derivatives. One could see that occidental models provided the opposite of an homogenizing influence, for it was dead easy to distinguish one local style from another, each tending to reinforce the current national stereotype. In general, we noticed that e.g. the Japanese were obsessed with sex, the Koreans were obsessed with love, & the Chinese were not obsessed. (By now perhaps they are all operating in the sex-only zone.)

Park Jae-sung, better known as Psy, the artist of “Gangnam Style,” is a good-heartedly vicious satirist. Gangnam is a neighbourhood in Seoul, equivalent to Rosedale or the Annex in Toronto — where the smug, sophisticated, gliberal people live in their big houses with their muchmoney & pretensions to class. It would seem the whole video was designed as an affront to them, & we shall therefore award it the Gold Reactionary Star. The dance style — riding an imaginary horse with hand twirling lasso — was wonderfully conceived to deliver this affront to an array of background Gangnam symbols, somewhat vulgarized. The video went viral to the grief of the cooler K-pop connoisseurs, who had no intention of sharing their joy with the world. But of course, they are among the targets Psy is mocking.