Wednesday, September 19, 2012

ZILLY TALKZ: PSY Craze and My Blog

Why do I blog?  There are some good reasons why I do it but the most important reason is that I want the world to get more accurate, in-depth information about (South) Korea, my motherland.

While studying in the US, years ago, I was really shocked to find almost nothing out there explaining Korea in English when there were a great collection of books about Japan or China written in English. I was really disappointed and even briefly angry at the Korean government and politicians that have been negligent in their duty. For, as my blog reader Judith Mopalia incisively put it, "There is probably not another country in the world so consistently misinterpreted, misunderstood and misrepresented as Korea - especially by people who purport to know about Korea."

Ever since, I've always wanted to talk about rarely-known aspects of Korean culture, society, and history and thanks to modern conveniences of the Internet and worldwide web, I'm blogging about Korea now. Of course, it'll be the icing on the cake if my blog becomes famous or I can make money in the long run from blogging. However, I wouldn't sacrifice the cake for the icing and it hurts when Korea is misportrayed with my blog misquoted. And I feel offended when my blog is used without citation or my consent. (It's beginning to tire me, to be honest.)

Though, I'll have to give this guy an A+ for perfectly "digesting" my interpretation of Psy's song/music video as if it was his own creation in the first place: 'GANGNAM STYLE' HAS SHARP SOCIAL RIFF, 220M VIEWS.  Of course, with no citation.  Bravo!  So, this morning, I told my son to be anything but a journalist. Seriously, what else can I do?

BTW, six days ago, he emailed to ask me a load of questions and I stayed up late to complete the answers, which I want to share with my readers here.

Q: Why is the song popular among Koreans? Is it popular among Koreans?
Do Koreans see the nuanced satire here or is it just the dance/rhythm? Is too much made of the satire/social commentary angle? (PSY has said he was just trying to write a funny song and has been surprised by the questions about satire....)

I think it’s basically just the dance/rhythm. And that was why I wanted to write about the Gangnam Style song/video.  I thought people inside & outside Korea might take it just as another funny music video, which is actually deeper than they might think.  Many of Psy's lyrics are satirical about Korean society and the moment I watched it, I just instantly knew it’s a satire partly as a Korean and partly as a long-time fan of Psy since his debut.

When the song/video has become a global phenom and the worldwide listeners are going wild about it, even having no idea what the lyrics literally mean, though, Psy might have not wanted to strike a sour note in the party of his as well as theirs. Or my blog might have gone too far in one direction of the satire/social commentary. But don’t you think that’s a special privilege that reviewers or critics of songs, movies, or books have?

Why is GS popular among overseas viewers?

funny and refreshing

What does the global popularity of GS mean?

Korean fans now jokingly say, “PSY's newly acclaimed global fame is “forcibly” given to him.” Unlike some other k-pop idol stars that have been knocking on the US market, he’s risen global stardom without any promotion. I think the global popularity of GS can translate to "Try first to make it big in your neighborhoods, then the rest MAY follow in this socially networked world." I also believe his success was boosted by his timely contract with the YG Entertainment (YGE) that boasts a huge fan base in Asia and Europe.  (He signed to YGE in late 2010.)  The loyal fans who religiously listen to the songs and watch the music videos produced by YGE must have been the initial spreaders of Psy’s viral video, I guess.

Is Psy making social commentary mainstream thing?

Well… yes and no.  During Kim Dae-jung government (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun government (2003-2008) when South Korean democracy (and economy) was stabilized and blossomed, there were plenty of artists/musicians voicing their own opinions on almost every aspect of South Korean society.  But it’s been dying off or dying out as the recently released Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index 2011-12 shows: South Korea is ranked 44th in press freedom, falling below Botswana, South Africa and Ghana. (,1043.html)

Is it the first K pop export with social commentary and satire?

If you’re talking about exports to the US, yes; if it’s about Asia or South America, no: Yoon Mi-rae (aka Tasha or T), a female rapper/singer and her husband and rapper Tiger JK are already very popular in Asia and South America.

Psy style
What is it about his style that’s so popular?

Maybe a weird combination of cheesy yet classy (as he put it when describing “the mindset” of his song, “Dress Classy, Dance Cheesy”), strange yet familiar, peculiar yet universal, comic yet serious…..? Anyways, his style grows on you quite easily/fast and is quite addictive.

What explains the “Gangnam Style?” Overnight jump in real estate prices?
Something to do with the educations, the popularity of foreign brands, the tall buildings, the oldest South Korean apartments?

People have aspired to the idea it symbolizes – wealth, status, and power. In fact, the area boasts the elite educations, high-end foreign cars and fashionable clothes, upscale shops selling world-class labels, and high-rise apartment complexes like the Samsung Tower Palace.  As I wrote on my blog, though, the idea of Gangnam style is not actually tangible, just like the Emperor's New Clothes; in other words, GS means VANITY.

What is the song about?
Does the music video lampoon South Korea's ambivalence toward Gangnam?


Are South Koreans ambivalent toward Gangnam? On the one hand, they want to live there. They want to be part of the country’s most elite community, they want to marry someone whose parents live in Gangnam because of the wealth, the status of success that South Koreans want to attain.


Is it a place where once you get accepted, your children and grandchildren will be assured top educations and continued wealth from real estate prices? Something about South Koreans' desire for stability and security linked to Gangnam, because real estate will always be valuable and children will inherit?  


Do South Koreans respect people living in Gangnam or is there a feeling that they’re not self-made, that their money came from skyrocketing real estate prices, from luck or inheritances, instead of hard work.

The latter.

What about Gangnam as the heart of South Korea's plastic surgery boom? Is there bitterness that because you’ve got a lot of money you can transform yourself into a beauty? People envy the plastic beauty but also mock and poke fun at it?

Until lately, many of the people outside the Gangnam area really wanted to be one of them. But more than anything else, they are frustrated and furious about the extreme socioeconomic polarization between Gangbuk and Gangnam.

Since the Asian financial crisis which caused innumerable M & A, downsizing, cutbacks, and also large scale layoffs in South Korea. As the working and middle class got laid off, downsized, or outsourced, they had no choice but to sell their properties at giveaway prices. And it was the upper strata of society that purchased those properties as they had stable and abundant cash flows even in the crisis. As the middle class started turning into poor, their children has been deprived of high-quality education, which has led to much less opportunities to go to prestigious universities, which has led to much less opportunities to get better jobs in the society where highly specialized, high-end white-collar workers earn more money, respect, and power. In short, the IMF crisis created an endless vicious circle of poverty in Korean society. And as the 2011 Korea National Statistical Office survey shows that 58.7 percent of respondents say they don’t think they will ever move up to the upper class, Gangnam in the 21st century epitomizes the upper strata of society, i.e., off limits to the rest of the country.

The Gangnam people have become so ugly in terms of public responsibility, let alone lacking a sense of noblesse oblige.  They even gang up on the rest of the world motivated purely by economic self-interest even though it's contrary to the public interest.  That’s how they have become the scorn of the rest of the world now.

What about Gangnam as the heart of South Korea's private education? South Korea's obssession with education and prestigious schools have generated a massive private education industry center of which is Gangnam.

The Gangnam School District 8 is not working miracles anymore as the specialized high schools located nationwide have been lately catapulted to top performing schools countrywide.

What does global, accidental popularity of Psy or kim ki-duk, both of which buck the success-formula that South Koreans have long held, mean to South koreans?
Do Kim Ki-duk and Psy make South Koreans rethink their place in the world? Inspire them to embrace and accept people for how they are, rather than trying to fit oneself into the proven success formula?
Kim and Psy don't fit into South Korea's success formula -- South Koreans believe being a graduate of top university, being fluent in English, looking good (meaning slim, stylish, flawless skin, looking young and well groomed), being a trend setter and quickly accepting the top foreign trend/brands as a formula for success. They also believe that these elements will make them appear successful to fellow South Koreans. Hence so many Gangnam women carrying luxury bags....
Kim didn't receive formal education beyond elementary school, was a manual laborer since 15. He never got formal training in film and he had no connection in universities to make it in the film or any industry ... yet he’s a massive success for his quirky, non-conformist movies.
Psy – chubby, not classically or plastically handsome, old (for KPop), drug run in and dodged military service. In a way both of them are failures who no South Korean parents would want their kids to imitate, and yet they are the “face of Korea” in their respective fields – music and movies....

I’ll begin with Psy:  While Psy’s global fame is accidental, his popularity among South Korean people is far from it, I think.  When he first appeared in the Korean music scene, he immediately captured the hearts of viewers not only with his uniquely fun and exhilarating music and performance/dance but with comic and satirical lyrics; in other words, his music captured the spirit of the times. Born and raised in an extraordinarily rich family (of course in Gangnam) and now married to a woman from an equally wealthy family, he’s a walking example of the phrase, “Appearances can be deceiving.” And he’s really smart as my friend said, “Some may think Psy looks like a pig, but he really is a fat fox.”   He's been an iconic figure in Korean music industry, especially as the “King of Performance”; he literally brings the house down with his signature, hilarious performances.  Of course, he had some scandals but I don’t think he was considered a failure, maybe by some, but absolutely not by his fans.  And a majority of Korean people seem to have already forgiven him as he's honestly making a mockery of his scandals.  (As the old saying goes, no one spits on a smiling face.)  Even though he’s got this confidence unique to wealthy kids, he doesn’t look like one of them.  In his case, his chubby, not classically or plastically handsome appearance is his strength.  In short, ironically enough, both his wealthy background and his down-to-earth demeanor have made him a household name both among the haves and among the have-nots.

Kim Ki-duk:  On the contrary, Kim is the most misinterpreted, the most misunderstood, the most underappreciated, the most underrated, and probably the most hated director in Korea.  South Korean smart-ass critics and media have always disparaged his achievements, mainly because they're more educated than him. And the undereducated/ordinary Koreans or the extreme feminists just have felt disgusted with him as they consider his movies/him to be offensive, disturbing, and disrespectful of women.  Even now, a number of critics (and the media) are dissing him and his movie, Pieta.  So I agree, in a way, he is considered a failure in the South Korean society.

Other Reads: Wait! PSY's Gangnam Style Video Gets Propaganda Treatment?
                      My Blog Cited in the Atlantic Article


  1. I'm sorry that your responses weren't used, but I'm happy that you've decided to post them on your own blog. I feel like I learn more about different places and people through sites like My Dear Korea than by flipping through news articles.

    Hopefully the attention you've received through your analysis of Psy's video will keep you afloat when spirits are low. I certainly appreciate the window into Korea that you've created here.

  2. catharticaggression, thanks a lot for your encouragement. But I was sorry not because my responses weren't used but because I fell into the dilemma: When I'm writing for my readers who are interested in or fond of Korea, I'm also feeding the thieves out there.

    I admit I wasn't specific enough and just made some corrections to some sentences to be more clear. Anyway, I chose not to mind as my original intention is clear to me.

  3. Onsemiro, hello. My name is David. Like many others, I've come down with 'Gangnam Style' fever. But my interest in it is the same as yours; I'm curious about the underlying meaning in modern-day Korea.

    I also write a blog (though I haven't written anything since April this year) where I express my observation and thoughts from an outsider's point of view about social trends in Korea. I've taught English to Korean adults in Incheon for 3 years and have collected insight from what I hear in the classroom as well as what I see around me. I then turn that insight into serious essays and some short stories chronicling my experiences. As an outsider, what I express is genuine analysis - albeit with a little sarcasm and cynicism - because I like exploring differences in culture and I like thinking about where Korea is in the world 60 years after, literally, rising from the ashes of the Korean War.

    That said, I hope that I'm not one of those people that, in the words of your blog reader, Judith Mopalia, is misinterpreting, misunderstanding, or misrepresenting Korea. My only intention is to chronicle what I observe and ask questions about where Korea is in this time, where it seems like it wants to go, and pose answers - as an outsider - to those questions. I'm by no means a reputable economist (nor merely an economist). However, I still have opinions and I like stating them in an organized manner on my blog. Please take a look around when you have time:

    So, back to 'Gangnam Style' ... I really enjoyed reading what you had to say about it. It was quite thorough. It could help me write something concerning my own thoughts on Psy's breakthrough. I've written about K-Pop before from my foreigner-perspective (I understand if you don't agree with what I had to say - look for "소녀시대는 미국에서"). Now I would like to tie Gangnam Style's success into my thoughts about the K-Pop industry. Many people have written about the meaning of 'Gangnam Style.' My curiosity now is in this question: "What will K-pop's move be now that Psy has broken into the American mainstream?" I'm wondering whether K-Pop idol groups and the entertainment agencies will formulate something that mirrors (tries to mirror) Psy's success. Or, they may not do anything. But, being that, in your own words, "other k-pop idol stars have been knocking on the US market" with only minor success, I suspect the agencies will think long and hard about changing their formula. My interest is in how the more popular idol groups may or may not embrace the whole social commentary and satire concept that 'Gangnam Style' so cleverly employs. If I do write something on it, I'll be more than happy to cite your blog as a source, unlike the other guy :)

    I hope you find time to click around my blog. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on some of the material. Happy writing.

  4. David, I just read your post, "Girls’ Generation in the U.S.," and I agree most of the k-pop idols are manufactured, but not by Korean government. Most of the Korean government officials and political leaders including most of the former and now presidents are too busy coveting power and lining their pockets to care about spreading the message about its country’s culture to the world.

    And I think I'll have to make myself clear here. I've been approached by several US journalists since I posted a series of pieces on Psy and Gangnam style. But the bottom line is I don't want to be quoted in any article that'll misportray Korea with malicious intent or due to the writer's ignorance.

    It's totally healthy and even constructive to analyze and write about something "with a little sarcasm and cynicism" if you're well-meaning. Thus, it's okay if you quote me as long as your piece is written based on accurate information. I hope you understand what I mean.

    So, here's my thoughts:

    I think the US market is too conservative to embrace foreign imports (except for British music). Thus, their current craze for Psy and his Gangnam Style is quite unusual. I think it's because his song and style is very unique/peculiar yet familiar/universal at the same time. Other K-pop idols don't have such a weird combination of characters that works a charm. And I think that's why Scooter Braun approached Psy only. At first, I thought he might end up being a one-hit wonder despite his 12-year-long successful career in Korea; but now that he's teamed up with Braun, his odds of longer-term success are much higher, which might possibly benefit other Korean musicians like 2NE1. I personally hope his success will provide a chance to introduce the US audience to other Korean musicians I don't want to categorize into "K-pop".

    And as you already know, most of the Korean k-pop idols are manufactured by their agencies, it's up to their bosses' discretion to employ "the social commentary and satire concept." From 1996 through 2008 when South Korean democracy was stabilized and blossomed, there were plenty of social commentaries and satires on almost every aspect of South Korean society. Even the likes of H.O.T or TVQX sang such songs but I think it was SM's idea or decision to do it in the first place. During that era, they didn't need to worry about any possible disadvantages of doing that.

    Hope my thoughts may offer you any insight.

  5. its true that SM was one of the few companies that started these type of songs with political and social innuendoes.

    as a fan of TVXQ I realized this quickly in their more popular songs like "O" where a part of the lyrics says:

    ~if I were to take back one step and look at this era right now
    Principles, fundamentals, these things that have no truth
    In this era, has your presence always been half?
    A reality with no ideals is just an image "O" ~

    TVXQ's most popular song, Rising Sun, also had many powerful lyrics aimed at social and political reforms like these:

    ~Everyone holds the truth,
    Yet it’s hidden behind a deceptive facade.
    Will I forever be questioning what’s left of my life?

    Seriously, where the hell is the end to this chaos?
    (Somebody, talk. Each day, there’s a different answer.)
    Can suffering ever lead to happiness?
    (Somebody, talk. Only time can tell)~

    BoA, TVXQ, and TRAX collaborated in a song called Triangle which had many messages about social injustice and unlawful killing.these are some of the lyrics to the song:

    ~It's the same case everyday...a place that produces an endless amount of deaths...did compassion disappear from this land?

    I won't see it anymore. I won't hear of the crashing reality.
    Don't calculate everything by its worth...people are an important existence. ~

    Earlier this year EXO released a song called Mama. Now their fans are mostly young teens who don't realize the meaning behind the lyrics but if u check it out u would realize that its a song criticizing how people are abusing the power of internet that allows them to remain anonymous and attack each other with vile and deathly words. it also talks about how people are becoming caged in their own obsession with the internet that they no longer have the desire to have a social life and communicate with one another directly to find love and friendship.

    this is one of my fav parts in the song:

    ~From a day we were behind the bars of a smart prison voluntarily
    0 & 1 were used digitally to make my personality
    There is no life, feelings and warmth over there, there is only trashy language
    There’s a wilderness of a self-desolated one
    Lonliness increases as days go by
    As human beings we can only be hurt.~

    and finally there is BAP. they are not under SM but their music has been compared to H.O.T. since their debut earlier this year. Their song Warrior also had many messages against the darkness in society. these are some of them:

    ~I will confront and fight for the souls in this street, whoa

    The endless war, who is it for?

    Everyone cowardly aims behind your head
    Will you hypocrites be forgiven?
    Throw away all the dark masks~

    BAP further outdid themselves with their next single Power which criticized the hunger people with power have for money and how the weak are dying in the shadows of the strong. this is my fav part of the song:

    ~You block out your ears and lips
    You’re too busy filling your stomach up, a role of stealing everything
    Like a decalcomanie, a role where money, status, and honor doesn’t change
    It’s time to move and the anthem of the strong and weak will break that fight
    This is a revolution, a guernica flow
    So everybody keep your head up

    There’s no more, there’s no more justice
    It’s a world that submits under the power of money
    The weak die in the shadows of the strong ~

    as u can see idols have been singing these type of songs with strong messages toward social and political reforms for many years now.

    I think part of the reason Psy's music is seen differently is because its much easier to interpret especially with the use of comedy rather than hardcore drama like what H.O.T, TVXQ, EXO, and BAP have done in the past.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts for reading. Yes, I know how publications can twist facts and opinions to make things seem as they aren't. If I ever do use something from your site, I'll be sure to tag it and make it crystal clear.

    I found your site courtesy of the Atlantic article. I'll be a regular visitor now that I know about it. You provide some good information.

  7. sarah, when I was answering to David's questions, I wanted you to come to my rescue. haha. :) BTW, when I first listened to EXO's "Mama," I was reminded of H.O.T and also Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

  8. David, I'll visit your blog often too.

  9. lol I didn't realize my post was gonna be this long hehehehe.

    don't worry im always here cuz i absolutely LOVE ur blog. its one of the very few places where I feel I can enjoy reading and discussing thought-provoking topics related to kpop.

  10. sarah, as you may already know, you're always welcome to share your knowledge and thoughts here.

  11. It is ridiculous that you were not given the credit you deserve. But, honestly, I'm shocked the writer of that article gets a regular paycheck from a well-known & respected publication! Hopefully this article is only a fluke, we all have bad days, but it simply isn't finished!! I was looking for the rest or a link to a second page. It doesn't wrap up, it falls off, leaving this reader to simply wonder, "Huh?!?" What a waste of time. It was probably a favor that your name isn't associated to it actually.

  12. BeatriceBlue, " It was probably a favor that your name isn't associated to it actually." <= Exactly. lol :)

  13. New reader here! I am glad I stumbled on your blog, thanks to the GS phenomenon. I have been learning and studying Korea for about 2 years now, and hope to visit next year.

    It was kind of funny, because this song was in EVERY single Korean dramas I have watched this summer, but I did not bother to look it up until my sister sent me a link with the video asking what it was about. Ha! It is quite a fascinating phenomenon, as you mentioned, so many Korean bands/artists have tried to make it in the U.S to no avail, and then came Psy...

    Anyway, I am really glad I stumbled on your blog, and will definitely be a frequent reader.

  14. Elom, welcome to My Dear Korea! btw, talking about the song's addictiveness, have you seen this?:

  15. I love it! It is exactly my friends' reactions when they first see the video.

  16. Onsemiro, your writing is fantastic! I came to your blog from (they did acknowledge your blog's influence), and I'm glad I did.

    I understand your frustrations with these "journalists." I had a very similar experience: I was interviewed by the Village Voice (by phone) concerning the topic of my Masters thesis, which was (not to sound boastful, but it is true), some groundbreaking work in my field. Almost his entire article was either directly lifted from my thesis (a copy of which I furnished to him), or from our interview. But my name did not appear in his article.

    Like you, I felt used. Then, I decided, my topic was bigger than me, and I needed to subvert my ego to it. While I still wish I had gotten at least a mention, I was glad, in the end, that at least this topic was becoming known.

    This is not to say that you should or should not feel any certain way - just to let you know, it happens to more than you! Probably not much comfort, but I know how you feel.

    And, despite not getting a citation in that article, you have gotten recognition, I think, in a much larger arena, in

    Congratulations, and thank you for your wonderful blog. I am learning a lot!

  17. tabbycat, I really thank you for your empathy. The thing that amazed me most was that all of them approached me with sugar-coated praises for my blog. But as I told catharticaggression above, I don't really mind now as my original intention is clear to me. But still, I just needed to vent and your comment made me feel A LOT better. Thanks again. :)


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