Ken Eckert Essays


The Bomb that Did Hit South Korea this Week

How Bad is Psy’s Gentleman?

By Ken Eckert

April 14, 2013

Anyone over forty who writes disparagingly about a pop song risks looking like Steve Allen complaining about Elvis Presley. Why can’t you young people play some nice music? We end up sounding like curmudgeons as we evaluate everything by how much it sounds like Fleetwood Mac, or maybe now Pearl Jam. So how can I convince you that Psy’s Gentleman, the sequel to his YouTube hit Gangnam Style is really, really terrible?

I can get away with the gallows joke about bombs because I’m here. Moreover, South Korean journalists and advertisers, not a terribly subtle bunch, have overplayed Gangnam Style so much to hawk the Korea brand and cellphones—completely missing the song’s underlying criticism of shallow Gangnam bling as well—that many foreigners I know here would probably prefer real tanks and bombs to hearing that damn ayyy sexy lady again.

Nevertheless, Gangnam Style had its charms. The song is catchy and the percussive, affricate-laden sound of Korean works well in rock, topped with enough English words to make the work both interestingly foreign and familiar. The video is funny and has a gentle social commentary. The girls are hot. K-pop in general is very safe and the closest it gets to sexy is flirty, and Gangnam Style pushes the envelope while still retaining some goofy innocence. It’s actually done far more for Korean tourism in showing that the country has a fun, quirky side than years of joyless government tourism about temples and hanboks.

In Gentleman, innocence, honesty, and commentary are jettisoned in what can only be described as a product devised by a twelve-year-old boy paired with a marketing consultant. The phoned-in, factory-settings synth-cheez of the music is in fact merely a vehicle for the video’s two jokes: one, if you say “mother, father, gentleman” fast enough, it sounds dirty; second… wait for it—Psy isn’t actually a gentleman. The highlights of the Gangnam Style video are cynically trotted out—dance moves, old men, yellow-suited dapper guy, etc.—in case they might help juice this one. Little has been innovated other than a bizarre stripper-dance on traffic poles at the end somehow meant to look post-modernly Japanese or ’edgy.’

The plot of the video revolves around Psy being a douchebag and humiliating women. As he dances and preens himself smugly, he spills hot coffee on dates, pulls away their chairs, knocks them off exercise equipment, rips off bikini tops, and laughs at everyone like a drunken frat boy. In the climax of the video, he meets a girl who is as big a jerk as he is and fin amor blooms, as beer is spilled on everyone. Kate Bush this is not.

Granted, as my students tactfully suggest, I’m not the video’s target age demographic. Do I take this bubble gum way too seriously? But Gangnam Style made people want to dance, and I’m afraid this video will inspire people to throw others on the floor or to inflict other painful and hilarious savagery. At least when this jerk made beer commercials on his first fifteen minutes of fame it appealed to everyone’s inner party animal and not their inner Guantanamo Bay.

Or is this just Korean humor that we’re not getting? The culture is heavy on slapstick, but like in the west, usually men get the pie in the face. Attacking someone smaller than you who doesn’t deserve it isn’t normally funny here either. The Wonder Girls’ Nobody Like You has some bathroom humor, but the barb is on the conceited male star. Psy is on the fringes in Korea just as Borat might be in the west, and not everyone enjoys his shtick. Besides, Psy has some familiarity with North American culture (he briefly studied in Boston) and the song is ostensibly aimed at reaching a larger international audience. This is how it ought to be read.

Analyzing humor is often, of course, pretty humorless. In graduate school my classes argued down a rabbit-hole about the mechanics of satire. Is Alanis Morisette’s Ironic a failure for not being very ironic, or a success for paradoxically being a non-ironic song called Ironic? At what point does a hipster band which ’ironically’ covers polka music cross a line where they’re a tribute band? What about the theory that Ann Coulter is such a cartoon extremist that she’s actually a living satire on Republicans? (After two decades that’s quite the performance piece.) What about so-bad-they’re-good camp works such as Reefer Madness, which are unintentionally facetious, or hybrid cases such as Rocky Horror Picture Show?

More disliked than the music purists are those perpetually offended grinches in academia or advocacy. But I’m not one, and as Camille Paglia might say about pop culture, I’m not above a fart joke. But there does need to be a joke accompanying the fart. American Pie is vulgar but witty and original. April Wine’s If You See Kay does the “say a phrase fast until it’s dirty” junior-high trick rather cheekily, and even Britney Spears pulls off a redux. The 2006 Korean movie 200 Pounds of Beauty takes what could be a tasteless premise—an obese singer receives a full-body plastic surgery makeover and then tries to adjust to life as a stunning beauty—and makes it warmly funny.

There is no warmth or delight in Gentleman. Psy isn’t cute or sympathetic, and when he’s mean to women because of how cool he is it’s not even the shock of misogyny, it just feels icky. Last year old footage came out of Psy shouting obscenities against American troops in a 2002 anti-U.S. demonstration after an accident in which a military vehicle killed two Korean schoolgirls. His subsequent apology doesn’t feel terribly sincere now that Psy tells the world that you can produce the exact same video again, have the women wear a little less to compensate, stick potty-mouth English words in the chorus, and foreigners will be dumb enough to watch. I live here. Koreans aren’t like this, and they ought to be as irritated as the video’s audience.

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