15 Minutes of “Style”

Now that everybody and their grandmother is posting the video of Psy performing with MC Hammer at the American Music Awards –

I suppose I should finally say a few words concerning the cultural phenomenon that is “Gangnam Style”. 

My experience with this song began sometime in the middle of July, shortly after it was first posted on YouTube. The city buses where I live are all equipped with two flat-screen televisions, one in the front and one in the back.  Throughout the day these televisions play three or four videos on a loop — usually an advertisement for some upcoming concert or cultural event, an animated short, a commercial for an exotic tourist destination, and a few minutes of the latest hit K-Pop song. There’s no sound, so you basically have to treat the whole thing like eye candy.

Being tall, I like to sit in the very first seat so I can have more leg room. As Fate would have it, that’s exactly where one of the flatscreens is situated. So I literally had a front-row seat when “Gangnam Style” first went into circulation. Having seen my fair share of Korean music videos, I was immediately struck by the fact that this one had a sense of humor. (K Pop tends to be either very sexy or very teen romance, but not funny…It’s kind of like high school in a way. There are ten or twelve really good-looking people but only one class clown.)

Later that same morning my teaching partner Yuri came walking into the office with a big smile on her face, plopped her laptop down on my desk, and said, “Oh my god, you have to see this.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “This is that video from the bus.”

Yeah. The next thing I knew, “that video from the bus” was being played everywhere I went. Street vendors in Itaewon started selling “Gangnam Style” socks. The old ladies who do aerobics in the park at night knew all the dance steps. And my students all started doing the horse dance every time they got up to sharpen their pencils.

Not long after, my co-workers and I started hearing weird rumors from back home. One person said their friend had heard “Gangnam Style” at a dance club in California. Another heard it while listening to his favorite hometown radio station online. The political blogs I frequent started running ridiculous articles that sought to explain what the song “is really all about.” And my friends in the States started decorating my Facebook wall with pictures like this one:

That was when it finally started to dawn on me that I was ground zero for something very special. (Well, almost ground zero…Gangnam is about 20-30 minutes from where I live.)Like most people, I had assumed that “Gangnam Style” was just a novelty song that would stay mostly limited to South Korean listeners. As of this writing, though, it has close to 800 million views on YouTube (arguably more “likes” than any other video) and could possibly hit the 1 billion mark by 2013. It’s not the first foreign-language song North America has ever fallen in love with, of course. For example, some of you may remember Jordy’s “Dur Dur D’etre Bebe“, Nena’s “99 Luftballoons“, and/or Richie Valens’s cover of the Spanish standard “La Bamba“. But to the best of my knowledge, “Gangnam Style” is the first crossover hit from Asia, and certainly the first one from Korea.

Speaking of Korea, can you find it on a map?

So congratulations to my adoptive country for giving us this neat little moment in time. The novelty will eventually wear off (and if you teach Korean kindergarteners, it wore off a loooooong time ago), but I’m looking into the future and imagining this song being one of those novelties we remember fondly (see also: “Ghostbusters“), not one of the ones that make us say “Ugh! What were we thinking?” (see also: “My Heart Will Go On” and “Macarena“).

Glad I was here for it. 🙂

About J. Wiltz

"Well, you know, there really isn't very much to say about me." - Andy Warhol
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