I blissfully ignore K-Pop (Korean Pop music) most of the time. It has little musical value and is of minimal interest to me. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t escape Gangnam Style. Once enough like-minded friends had posted the video, I tried to watch it. I kept getting about 20 seconds in and throwing my hands up in the air in dismay, refusing to put myself through any more. Then I read this article about PSY’s subversive take on Korea’s consumerist culture. Suddenly the video seemed worth a look and – I must confess – a giggle. Ok fine, I’ll admit I’ve done the horsy dance in a club at 2am. There, now we are all on the same page.
Then the strangest of things happened. Gangnam Style went global. Now, Korean people would like to believe that Hallyu or “the Korean Wave” is taking over the world. They are mistaken. While K-Pop has a substantial following outside Korea’s borders (which, in itself, is surprising), it is certainly not progressive or experimental in any musical way. It’s a thriving industry rather than a genre. And, while I concede that K-Pop is an important part of Korea’s contemporary identity, I think most music critics are indifferent to K-Pop. Korea’s indie music scene is far more deserving of their time, while they wait for Korean mainstream music to mature.
Then I saw Britney Spears dancing with PSY on Ellen. Huh? A Google later I learnt that PSY’s video is currently the most viewed K-Pop song in history, with about 50% of its views coming from the US. Perhaps I had been wrong, and there is a large Korean community in the US and K-Pop is popular there. Identity-based fandom. Fair enough. Pop culture still made sense to me.
Until it hit South Africa. When references to Gangnam Style by my South African friends popped up on my social media feeds, I sounded an almighty WTF?! Despite the abundance of South African expats in Korea, Korean culture is still off the radar for most of us. Korea is as far from home – geographically and culturally – as I have ever been. Most of the time, nothing makes sense here. Slowly, I have learnt to understand, and even grow affection for, Korean life. As I said, I’ve done the horsy dance. But I only understand Gangnam Style in a Korean context. My sister assures me, however, that upper class Capetonians are horsy-dancing all over the peninsula, and a “Keep Calm and Gangnam Style” poster is doing the rounds in offices all over South Africa.
Although, for once, South African culture was more befuddling than Korean culture, it was South African culture that provided me with an answer of sorts – literally. Listening (and dancing to) PSY outside Korea must be akin to listening to Die Antwoord outside South Africa.
For those who are unfamiliar with the internet sensation, Die Antwoord (their name translates to “The Answer”) is a South African hip-hop group who sing in kombuise-Afrikaans and English about class relations and life in South Africa, all with a cluster of kitsch. After exploding on the web, they went on to tour the USA, Canada, Australia and Scandanavia among other destinations. Most of the time, journalists don’t know what to make of them. Hey, many South Africans aren’t entirely sure whether or not their work is satirical.*
So what does an Afrikaans rap group have to do with a Korean pop star? Very little. But their fans might share similar experiences. Like non-South African fans of Die Antwoord, PSY fans around the world are dancing and singing along to lyrics they probably don’t understand. Similarly, fans of PSY may have absolutely no idea that his work is satirical or his lyrics ironic. Those few with an uncanny understanding of Afrikaans and Korean will notice that both PSY and Die Antwoord critique the elite and their status as a side-effect of consumer culture. Yolandi of Die Antwoord describes Zef counter-culture as “poor but . . . fancy” and PSY says the “mindset of [Gangnam Style] is: dress classy, dance cheesy”. Both comment on the disparity between the appearance of the elite and their underlying lack in good taste.
Has humour proved itself the most effective medium for cultural critique? I’d love to say it did so decades ago. Clubs filled with ironic dance moves do not a revolution make, however. Still, PSY and Die Antwoord seem to be achieving something the Macarena didn’t quite manage. For PSY in particular, the countless online parodies of Gangnam Style are evidence of some wickedly clever responses to his ideas. Hell, they are what transformed the song into a phenomenon. More than the songs themselves, the artists’ success seems to lie in the throngs of upper class fans imitating their moves and singing their lyrics. They’ve managed to get the elite to make fun of themselves while the world watches. Priceless.
*I’m in the camp that views Die Antwoord as a startlingly permanent piece of performance art. In interviews, Die Antwoord has dismissed this as a pretentious and over-thought position. I think that just makes their work more kiff.
This post was later published in Mahala.
The Culture Muncher by Deva Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.