It might be difficult to overestimate the iniquitousness of Korean pop star Psy’s hit single “Gangnam Style.” From supermarkets in the United States to cricket matches in South Asia, “Gangnam Style” has been played and imitated a countless number of times. In an era of viral media, the song has proved to be a cultural epidemic.
“Gangnam Style,” though criticizing materialism in contemporary Korean society, is in many ways the de-facto theme song for Brand Korea, whose exports were once seen as second-rate, but now is giving its Japanese and American competitors a run for their money. Hyundai, Samsung, and K-Pop all signal the emergence of corporate Korea on the world stage. It is a transition that perhaps began with the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, but is reaching new heights today.
Americans were shocked to learn this month that Psy took part in anti-U.S. rallies in 2002 and 2004 and, in the latter incident, sang lyrics from another Korean band that exhorted his countrymen to “Kill those Yankees.” Not only is the anti-Americanism virulent, but, more generally, the expressly political nature of the lyrics is glaring. Psy contradicts the American stereotype of the apolitical, business or fun-only Asian. But beyond this stereotype, what the shock in the U.S. points toward is an unfortunate American tone-deafness toward the politics — especially the politics at the sub-elite level — of other countries.