Politics, Gangnam Style

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Politics, Gangnam Style

Korean pop superstar Psy has unwittingly been co-opted into Southeast Asia’s political scene.

Judging from a recent outbreak of “Gangnam Style” politics in Southeast Asia, the K-Pop tune seemingly has no bounds.

On February 11 Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak hosted a Chinese New Year concert that included a performance by Korean pop superstar Psy. Just next door, former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, who is now running for mayor of Manila, wants to use a “Gangnam Style” jingle in his campaign. Meanwhile, last December Cambodian activists turned the horse-riding dance to a different end, using it to protest eviction of the urban poor. 

In the case of Malaysia, Psy accepted the offer to perform in a concert organized by Malaysia’s ruling party in the known opposition stronghold of Penang. Psy supporters reminded the icon that his presence in the concert would be used by the ailing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has been in power since 1957, to win the support of young voters at the polls in Malaysia’s upcoming general elections. A crowd of around 30,000 greeted Psy, but it remains to be seen whether this can be translated into votes for BN.

Indeed, the concert became a blatant political affair. Prime Minister Najib introduced Psy to the crowd just minutes after he announced the distribution of 20,000 affordable housing units in the next five years.

The opposition countered Najib’s pop election hype and asserted that the multi-million ringgit fee paid to Psy should have been allotted for public projects. The government responded by saying that no public funds were used in the event.

Observers noted that when Najib mentioned Psy the crowd cheered ecstatically. When he mentioned BN the crowd responded less enthusiastically and some even booed.

As in Malaysia, “Gangnam Style” is enjoying an extended run in the Philippines, thanks to politicians using it in their campaigns. Former President Estrada has jumped on the bandwagon and said that he wants to incorporate “Gangnam Style” into his electoral jingle for his mayoral campaign in Manila. His ally and former Senate President Ernesto Maceda also took the song on board in his campaign for reelection to the senate. 

Music industry reps have pointed out, however, that all candidates must first get permission from Psy and MCA Universal Music Group, which holds the license to the song in the Philippines, before putting any local twists on “Gangnam Style”. Otherwise, they could face charges for copyright violation.

According to some music executives, royalties for using foreign songs could top U.S. $25,000, depending on the artist. 

Regardless, “Gangnam Style” inspired jingles can be heard playing across the country, making, Psy an unofficial kingmaker in Philippine politics. 

If the repurposing of “Gangnam Style” has been geared towards elections in Malaysia and the Philippines, in Cambodia it became a song of protest. Last December, around 200 demonstrators marked the end of a series of events held to mark International Human Rights Day by doing the famed horse dance while chanting for land rights and social justice.

On the same day, around 11,200 Cambodians signed a petition to end illegal land evictions, which have affected about 400,000 people in Cambodia over the past decade.

As an entertainer, Psy can’t be accused of supporting particular political parties or candidates, but he does need to recognize that his hit song is being used for various political ends.

But politics aside, with so many Southeast Asians singing and grooving like Psy, 2013 may be remembered as the year when the region danced “Gangnam Style”.