Gangnam Style: Analysis of a Sudden Pop Culture Sensation

by jenny lu

“Gangnam Style,” a popular Korean song accompanied by a signature dance, has gained worldwide attention. The song has taken over radio stations, and PSY, the artist responsible for this catchy song, has appeared on multiple U.S. talk shows and other facets of entertainment. Hundreds of parodies and dance imitation videos have gone viral—videos made by celebrities, fans, and even students here at UC Berkeley. PSY has become a popular and successful chart topper in the U.S. music industry with this single, but should we be more conscious of the reception of “Gangnam Style” in America?

How do UC Berkeley students embrace this pop culture phenomenon? Ryan Clark, a first year student, said, “I think the song is quite comical…I think it’s popular because it is a catchy tune with a simple but innovative dance.”

When I was watching PSY’s visit on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, I couldn’t help but notice that PSY wasn’t on the show for an interview; he was there to display his “silly” dance as the audience laughed, clapped, and cheered along. Sure, it’s playful, but I would not fully consider this a positive reception. Viewers of the Ellen Show weren’t actually interested in the song, the lyrics, or the meaning behind the song—they were drawn by the ridiculous signature dance and the catchy beat. PSY explains in an interview that “Gangnam Style” is actually a satirical piece aimed at mocking the high class South Koreans in Seoul who express their lifestyle through a particular way of dressing and presenting themselves: the “Gangnam style.

Matthew Shong, a second year student, shared, “Because of the lack of seriousness behind the video, I have no [concern about] the lyrical meaning behind the video other than the entertainment value of the music video itself.” Despite the fact that PSY has a point behind his song, his music still falls under pseudo-individualization. PSY attempts to convey a different message in his song, yet ironically, he is absorbing the fame and fortune that he has earned. The message of mocking materialism in the song has long been lost behind the dance and tune, but now it has also been lost within the artist himself.

Mary Thao, a second year student, stated, “[General audiences] were enjoying it for entertainment issues, which only reinforce the media stereotypes of Asian Americans.” Throughout the video, PSY portrays a silly character, creating a ridiculous image of Asians; he exudes the qualities of the typical “funny Asian guy.” He is emasculated and in a sense not sexually attractive, which has been the typical role of the Asian male in America. This song and its music video were allowed to become mainstream because they do not threaten American male masculinity. PSY and “Gangnam Style” are just another Asian media text that allows Americans to have a good laugh about how silly Asian males are—just like Ken Jeong (The Hangover and Community) in almost all his roles. PSY is simply a different form of the same stereotype we see in American media: the Asian who has to give up his talent and the meaning behind his music in order to conform to a stereotype that does not fairly represent us.

Of course, we can’t help but be happy for PSY and his international success. We shouldn’t even hold back from celebrating his success, enjoying the song, and learning the dance! However, we should be critical of this type of cultural “success” in America and what this means for Asian/Pacific Islander Americans and our representation.