Every now and then, something blows through pop culture like a shockwave goes through a prefab town in one of those old nuclear bomb test videos. Such a bomb, metaphorically speaking, recently detonated in Seoul, South Korea. And its ripples reach all the way to America.
On July 15, Korean rapper Park Jae-Sang, better known by his stage name, PSY (short for "psycho"), released his video for the song "Gangnam Style." In it, the 34-year-old repeatedly performs a ridiculous—but ridiculously compelling—dance with a series of sensually comedic moves that make it look like he's riding a horse.
Does that sound like a formula for a global hit? No? Well, you didn't see the "Macarena" coming either.
As of this writing, some 225 million people have viewed the video on YouTube. "Gangham Style" also leaped to the top of the iTunes singles chart. And its title is the No. 1 searched-for term in the world on Google. PSY himself—a rather ordinary-looking, slightly overweight Korean man—is suddenly everywhere, from the Today show to Saturday Night Live to Ellen. Artists such as Britney Spears, Katy Perry, T-Pain and Josh Groban are gushing about him on Twitter. And Justin Bieber's manager, Scooter Braun—who knows a potentially lucrative Internet sensation when he sees one—has quickly swooped in to sign PSY to a U.S. record deal.
Whew! When the music moves you, it really moves. But what exactly is moving everyone? Is it mere curiosity? Cool EDM-derived, ear-wormy riffs? Shallow social significance?
The video itself features PSY in a variety of locales (playground, hot tub, elevator, parking garage, beach) as he performs his signature dance over and over again. Some of it's just silly. It's almost impossible not to laugh as he hops forward and holds the imaginary reins of his imaginary horse in check.
Elsewhere, though, the video's sensual stuff is less of a laughing matter. PSY eyes a woman's rear and opens his mouth as if to bite it. We see quite a bit of hip-thrusting. And the camera zooms in on scantily clad dancers' bodies throughout, even as the chorus—the only words in English—repeats, "Eh, sexy lady."
Intellectually intrepid investigators who go searching for a translation of the rest of the song's lyrics will find lines like these: "A girl who looks quiet but plays when she plays/A girl who puts her hair down when the right time comes/A girl who covers herself but is more sexy than a girl who bares it all/A sensible girl like that." And PSY says of himself, "I'm a guy/A guy who seems calm but plays when he plays/A guy who goes completely crazy when the right time comes/A guy who has bulging ideas rather than muscles/That kind of guy."
It's tempting to dismiss PSY's efforts here as a superficially shallow dance hit that's caught cultural fire, a song with little, if any, substance. Interestingly, however, PSY himself has said he intended the song to be a satire of Seoul's wealthy and style-conscious Gangnam district.
In a making-of featurette about the video, PSY commented, "Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic." Adrian Hong, a frequently quoted Korean-American consultant, added, "Koreans have been kind of caught up in this spending to look wealthy, and Gangnam has really been the leading edge of that. I think a lot of what [PSY] is pointing out is how silly that is. The whole video is about him thinking he's a hotshot but then realizing he's just, you know, at a children's playground, or thinking he's playing polo or something and realizes he's on a merry-go-round."
Whether or not that satirical subtext can possibly compete with the video's silliness and sensuality, however, remains to be seen. And if that's an open-ended question in Korea, it's doubly so in the U.S. Rather than noticing that would-be social critique, I suspect most viewers will just be laughing at what seems like an Asian version of "Weird Al" Yankovic—a daffy dude doing his weird horsey dance.