Part 2 from an interview conducted with UC Berkeley Professor Darren Zook, concentrated around “Gangnam Style” and social critique in Kpop.
Have you read Part 1? Check out “It’s Not Kpop”.
Professor Darren Zook of University of California, Berkeley, has a unique outlook and perspective on Gangnam Fever. “This is not a revolution” he says. He isn’t talking about Gangnam Style‘s massive viral explosion, Psy’s current presence across US and other international media landscapes, or about the rising awareness of Korea as a producer of quality cultural goods. This is about social critique in Korean pop music, and how Psy is sadly not sufficient to furthering its presence in the Korean pop culture media landscape.
We delve now in to the broader and more thought provoking issue of social critique in Korean pop culture, specifically music. I found what Professor Zook had to say as not only interesting, but something it might be difficult for diehard fans, or even nationalists, to swallow. It is a necessary observation to confront–the issue of humor, self-deprecation, and critique of the nation are different in Korea and the United States, for better or worse.
Why is socially critical music disappearing?
What you don’t have in Korea yet is that kind of ironic self-awareness. For most people, you don’t openly make fun of Gangnam, particularly in Korean Dramas. If you have seen Bobby Lee’s K-Drama parody, well Koreans hate it, they ask “Why would you make fun of dramas?” American humor has the step above in self-awareness where you laugh at yourself. Korea doesn’t have it, and Gangnam Style would have been that kind of thing, where Koreans go “c’mon let’s look at our obsession with money, and possessions, and wealth.” Have you been to Seoul?
Not yet, but I know you have, so what is your impression of Gangnam?
People go out of there way for that address. When you walk down the streets of Gangnam you see people thinking way too much of themselves, people flaunting wealth. People will go broke for that address, it’s like 90210. Just having an apartment near Gangnam means something. So the interesting thing (with Gangnam style) is that the lyrics do not really hint at much social parody, the lyrics are reasonably harmless. The video is quintessential to getting the message, because the reality is in the video he doesn’t have Gangnam Style. He’s dressed terribly, he’s got all the wrong body features, he’s everything a real Gangnam style person isn’t. It is tough if you don’t know Gangnam, and you don’t know Seoul– you know the last time I looked at the video I loved reading the comments, “Does anybody know what he’s saying, I love this song, what is he saying?”. You know nobody knows what this song is about. Nobody knows what it means.
I brought up the point that Psy still does belong to a large mainstream music label, YG entertainment, and that the very neighborhood he makes fun of is where all the young Korean pop stars live. These are his peers and friends. Zook stated he didn’t think Psy would lose any friends, but if he had gone farther and really pushed the critique, he could have seen himself outside of that social circle. “He has created a nice niche for himself”, stated Zook.
Zook further stated that not only is the meaning lost on both the international and domestic community, but that it came back to Korea as part of Korean nationalism, stating “Anything that Korea makes that becomes popular abroad creates a sense of nationalism.” It is interesting to consider Gangnam Style as a tool of Korean nationalism, because we must ask some fundamental questions. How does it, or does it even, inform and spread genuine knowledge and interest about Korea in the international community? If the meaning is lost on the international community, and it’s seen merely as this silly song to dance to, what does that mean for Korea?
Professor Zook Mentioned Bobby Lee’s parody and it brought to mind SNL’s skit on Psy (which is currently eluding my internet search prowess). I feel like some laughing at Korea has certainly been happening in this Gangnam Fever, and I wonder if that has been lost on Korea as well?
Professor Darren Zook instructs in International and Area Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies at UC Berkeley. His work focuses on human rights, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. Photo credit to Peg Skorpinski.