Monday, August 27, 2012

Gangnam Style: What's the deal with K-Pop?

The most common question I've been asked from friends at home over the past few weeks is: What is going on in this music video?!

Before I had internet installed in my apartment last week (*fist pumps*) I wrote my blog posts using the WiFi at a coffee shop, where I first saw this video....and then saw it over and over again. At first I couldn't stand it, but by listen number 1,435,675 I was bobbing my head along to the-how-can-this-possibly-be-so-catchy beat. And by listen 23,453,765 I was at a club dancing to it...very enthusiastically I might add.

Gangnam (pronounced gahng-nahm) is the ritzy, trendy area of Seoul. Saying "Gangnam style" is the equivalent of saying "Beverly Hills style." The song and video, particularly the infamous and eyebrow-raising "horse dance", intend satirize "Gangnam posers", or as Psy, the singer of the song explains in a CNN interview:

"People who are actually from Gangnam never proclaim that they are -- it’s only the posers and wannabes that put on these airs and say that they are "Gangnam Style" -- so this song is actually poking fun at those kinds of people who are trying so hard to be something that they’re not."

You can read the rest of the interview hereTo answer what you're thinking, despite his comical appearance, Psy is in fact very famous, and was so even before this song. He also studied at Boston University and the Berklee College of Music (yup, funny and smart, line up ladies), and has had a successful career writing songs for other groups/singers. Rumor has it he might soon be making music with Justin Beiber.

I believe the other men in the video (the guy in the banana yellow suit and Mr. hip-thrusting-in-the-elevator) are famous Korean comedians. While it has all of the trappings of a typical, vapid K-Pop hit, on the contrary, the song is meant to be satirical (and of course, make you dance like you're trying too hard to be Gangnam style). Psy's satire and quirky appearance separate him from other K-Pop acts, and certainly contributed to making him such a success internationally. There is a great Atlantic Monthly article discussing the surprisingly subversive nature of the music video, as it more than pokes fun at the empty, materialistic pursuits of Gangnam trust fund babies. Definitely worth the read!

This video also leads me to a lot of other talking points about K-Pop music. The next being: do you like/listen to it? Well, yes and no. Would I put it on in the privacy of my own apartment while doing the dishes? No, probably not. It's not really something you can sit back and relax to; but do I enjoy it when it's blasting over the loud speakers of my school, and playing at bars and clubs? Of course! Nothing beats writing lesson plans while quietly rocking out to this song by Dal Shabet:

Though I admit it took me a while to figure out that they were actually singing "Mr. Bang Bang" and not some weird pronunciation of the word "baby" over and over, I'm pretty into this song. 

Now I'll give all of you out there a moment to press play (and maybe replay), and some more time to reflect on how much you actually do like this song, despite what your inner-indie god/goddess is telling you (it's okay. If you're struggling, I'm sure K-Pop is, or will soon be, super cool in an ironic way...either that or you can always say that you like, totally discovered this song first like three zillion years ago on your rando- friend's blog and all these people listening to it now might as well be Gangnam style posers).

Anyway, point is, if you look closely you might notice some things about K-Pop music that you don't see in Gangnam Style. There are six girls in Dal Shabet, but they are not differentiated Scary, Sporty, Baby, and Posh style (if you don't get that reference...well...maybe there are other, better blogs out there for you) fact, they all look quite the same. Listeners in America like to complain about how manufactured music groups are in America, but I'm rather sure that the K-Pop industry is unrivaled in its ability to churn out indistinct pop groups.

Well to be fair.... at least they appear indistinct. These groups spend hours upon hours on Korean variety and talk shows, giving fans (who redefine the terms diehard and zealous I might add) a chance to get to know each member of the group very well. Since I don't understand Korean however, and admittedly have to make my judgments solely on appearance, it's difficult for my fiercely-individualistic-American self to understand how one could genuinely drool over a group in which everyone dresses the same, dances the same, and yes...probably had the same plastic surgery (a friend of mine pointed out their eerily similar facial and nose structures).

For me there's an obvious line between enjoying K-Pop music and being truly ingrained in K-Pop culture. K-Pop naturally reflects the general homogeneity of Korean culture, and an extreme desire to blend in, which I often find hard to understand. Yes people in America want to fit in, and resort to superficial means to do so, but the creed of individuality is still deeply embedded in American society.

From the beginning, most of us in the States have been taught that we are special, and have unique gifts to contribute to society, school, our friend groups, etc. Thus "fitting" in America usually means conceding only some aspects of one's self in order to intertwine one's individual identity with that of a group, while in Korea "fitting in" often means conforming to that group in every conceivable way.

Now I've touched on homogeneity in Korea before, but I feel it bears some elaboration here. Though some of you may agree with my assessment of Korean vs. American "fitting in", I can still hear some readers' internal groaning, "People in America also try to look and dress the same to fit in. It's no different". Well for those who have not experienced what I'm talking about, I'll tell you now: it is different.

Let me give an example (one of my personal favorites): clothes. In America, people will buy certain brands to associate with different trends. If you want to be preppy you'll get a Lacoste polo and some J. Crew salmon-colored pants. If you want to be quasi-alternative, you'll get a cut-out dress from Urban Outfitters or American Apparel. If you want to go goth, you'll get a black t-shirt and spiked collar from Hot Topic. In Korea however, on the whole, these dichotomies hardly exist. Even those who I see dressing outside of mainstream Korean fashion still seem to follow the same prescribed alternative fashions (generally a subdued punk look). While the number of people I see donning these alternative fashions in Seoul seems to be growing, they still feel like the exception, not the rule. 

Anyone who knows me well can attest to my normally excessive shopping habits, but in Korea I find shopping less enthralling. When it comes to clothes I tend to gravitate towards pieces that are elaborate, intricate, or loud. In Korea however, no matter where you shop, you'll find almost all clothes come in only a handful of styles and cuts, and are made from the same fabrics. In general patterns are more subdued, and clothing items lack detail or hardware. Many stores do not carry signature styles or looks like they do in the States. In America, we tend to look for small ways to stand out, in Korea, not so much.


Wonder Girls....look familiar?
It seems like many factors, including geography, and hundreds of years of less than stellar foreign relations with neighboring aggressors, have made it more necessary for Koreans to protect their overall culture than foster individuality. I dwell on this here because it's been one of the most difficult cultural aspects to relate to; clothes and K-Pop are only two examples of how it enters my everyday life. I don't mean this evaluation of Korea's homogeneity to be negative, but perhaps you can try to imagine how unfamiliar the concept of blending in feels to a loud, outspoken Jersey girl. More importantly, I think the way culture affects the structure of Korean vs. American pop groups (and how we perceive them) is extremely fascinating.

For me the disposition toward homogeneity also explain why these music groups are so large (some groups have as many  as nine members)! I could never imagine seeing such large groups in America because each member would need to have defining, or even opposing characteristics, which would be difficult to achieve with so many members. For example, in American male pop groups there's always the bad boy, the boy next door, the heart throb, etc. In Korea it seems like they are all meant to be the heart throb (add dash of bad boy)...though with varying degrees of success.

Of course there will always be favorites who emerge as front men/women in these groups. Netizens and paparazzi are as ruthless as anywhere else. While for me I am taken with what I see as the distinct indistinctness of K-Pop groups, the K-Pop industry itself is certainly a unique culture and genre all its own. Though I've put them under some scrutiny in this post, many artists in these groups are very talented and undoubtedly work as hard as any American artist. If you're interested in learning more, I thought made a great video on the messy split of the group T-ara. It gives more even more insight on how these groups function (even if you've never listen to them it will still be interesting).

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