Hiphop, Gangnam Style and a Cultural Reboot

The global feelgood song of the summer of 2012 is a whacky dance tune by a Korean rapper who had disappeared from the K-pop radar screen a couple of years ago. And it’s likely to inject some much-needed perspective into the global pop culture and fashion scene.

Most of the acclaim being heaped on Psy’s “Gangnam Style” doesn’t do it full justice — can’t do it justice because most admirers don’t understand Korean. One of the best things about the song is its lyrics, which are almost entirely in Korean. It would take a virtuoso translator to convey fully the pungent flavor of the original Korean.

“I’m a guy who knows what’s what,” one line might by translated into. “The guy who flies is higher than the guy who runs,” goes another.

They capture the laughably smug attitude of a certain type of culturally oblivious slaves of fashion who feel untouchable in their faithful worship of the fads du jour.

What best depicts — and devastatingly undercuts — the foolishness of such pretentious oblivion are the visuals of the original “Gangnam Style” video. Imagine the derision that would be provoked by someone doing the horse gallop dance on a club dance floor (before “Gangnam Style” went viral, of course — now it would be considered tongue-in-cheek-cool).

That’s precisely the response that should have greeted the kind of smug pretention the song was mocking. Who were those slaves of fashion gone badly wrong? For one, the young Koreans — and Americans — who mimic every sneer and glare of the hiphop swagger originally affected by petty dope dealers in the hoods of South Central Los Angeles.

But of course few had the balls to deride that attitude because it had become pop music’s global platinum standard. There were an occasional hiphop video and a few songs that gently mocked hiphop swagger. But they were mostly cutesy nibblings at the edges of gender roles and not full frontal assaults on the core hiphop ethos.

The biggest slaves of hiphop fashion had been K-pop boy bands. Young producers and talents who had grown up in a homogenous society mostly devoid of the kinds of constant physical threats that inspired the defensive glare and swagger at the heart of hiphop have been churning out rap songs ad nauseum — complete with gold caps, tattoos, webbed pants and that ubiquitous blank glare of mindless hostility. These were faithfully and unquestioningly consumed by an audience of kids smothered in parental and societal protection, kids given every chance of getting into top colleges and fitting into corporate Korea.

Of course, this is no different from the millions of American kids who had become slaves of the sanitized, glamorized version of hiphop culture. Yes, they are probably finding in hiphop an expression of rebellion against their own peculiar brand of parental oppression, but their mindless embrace of it is an absurdity worth laughing at.

For the past decade hiphop-based K-pop products screamed out the dire emptiness of modern Korean culture. That mindless void is symbolized by the dark sunglasses that reflect the urban kiddie playground and highrises in the opening frames of “Gangnam Style”. The song’s derision applies equally well to the generally status- and fashion-enslaved mentality of a certain segment of Korean society which too embraces the mindlessly smug, blankly hostile glare reflected in those sunglasses.

There was much to satirize in modern Korean society — and global pop culture — and few were doing it. No one has done it with as much fun and bravado as Psy aka Park Jae-sang. Whatever his original impulse may have been behind “Gangnam Style”, its subversive style has found a responsive chord in a world desperate for something more spiritually nourishing than the glare of smug, mindless hostility. Park has managed to provide exactly the right horse at the right time. The whole world has jumped on and is galloping along.

It’s a ride from which hiphop probably won’t recover.