As a teenager I grew up with K-pop but I wanted nothing to do with it. It seemed to me that the assembly-line of girl and boy bands, heavily promoted by South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, had nothing new to offer the world. I would never have predicted that a Korean star would become the sensation of 2012. K-pop has its roots in a desire among some non-Westerners to become culturally white. K-pop, however, grew to be worn as a badge of Asian pride. Not only did Korean friends – expats like me – start listening to K-pop to assert their Korean roots, but kids of other Asian ethnicities began to idolize K-pop stars.
When one called Psy became famous, I was not initially keen to watch him. Over the summer I spent time with the novelist, Kyung-sook Shin, award-winning author of Please Look after Mother. She was asked by a literary journal from Istanbul for her thoughts on ‘Gangnam style’, and her answer made me think again. She said Psy had created an impressive caricature of a Gangnam youth: an affluent, K-Pop-loving consumer of mainstream culture.
Gangnam, meaning ‘south of the river’ in Korean, is that part of Seoul where flashy new money has settled. As the son of a Gangnam tycoon, Psy is the epitome of the Gangnam legacy.
His dance moves have been copied all over the world but to my mind, the boys from Eton College – members of a different type of elite – got it right with their spoof: satire often succeeds through detached observation of an experience that is close to you.
For me the most memorable scene in the original video of Gangnam style is the provocative close-up of young Korean housewives exercising on the Gangnam riverbank, apparently unaware of the cheeky sexual lens through which they are being portrayed. Psy’s creation is revolutionary in a country devoid of irony in how it sees and presents itself. I welcome it