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Though K-pop, or Korean pop music, sensation Park Jaesang (PSY) was widely acclaimed in his home nation of South Korea for several music records, concerts, and a few music videos, he did not acquire international recognition until his hit music video “Gangnam Style” was released on YouTube in 2012. The quirky satirical video became the most-viewed video in the history of YouTube, hitting one billion views on December 21st, 2012, just over five months after its release. Then, in June 2014, “Gangnam Style” reached two billion views in just under two years after its release.
PSY may be short for “psycho,” but according to Billboard, he is certainly well-versed enough in the business world, as well as what his audience is interested in, to “make his own decisions without label micromanagement.” Taking a lead role in the development of “Gangnam Style”, PSY co-directed the video and choreographed the notorious horse dance used all throughout. Though PSY had not released many music videos before “Gangnam Style”, he did manage to climb to the top of several music charts in Korea six times over the twelve years of his career, a history that perhaps predicted the instant success of “Gangnam Style” in the country. As for international acclaim, PSY told Reuters, “The YouTube video never targeted foreign countries. It was for local fans.” The lyrics that play in the video are mainly in Korean, and there are some nuances within both those lyrics and the videography that only those fluent in
Korean culture, especially K-pop, would pick up on. A major example of this is that PSY chose to include several Korean celebrities in his music video, such as the five-year-old dancer Hwang Min Woo from “Korea’s Got Talent”, PSY’s Korean comedian friend, Noh Hong-cheol, and Hyun-Ah, a K-pop singer from the group 4Minute. Viewers outside of Korea that do not have much experience with Korean popular culture may not recognize any of these celebrities, whose guest appearances are a tradition of sorts that is typical of K-pop.
Because “Gangnam Style” was released on YouTube, it could be easily shared outside of Korea and thus spread internationally to those viewers outside of Korea in a rather short amount of time. It did not become wildly popular across the globe immediately after its release, but once it started spreading, it did so very quickly. Though the music video was principally released on YouTube (and available for purchase on websites like iTunes), it became viral so easily due to its initial, and eventually exponential, fan base. As Billboard explains, “the greatest contributing factor to ‘Gangnam Style’s’ success were the fans who created covers and shared the songs with friends.” So, not only was PSY’s hit video distributed as its original form, but many parody videos made by fans with their own take (typically comedic) helped to spread the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon.
Though PSY took a shot on the success of “Gangnam Style”, both he and his label, YG Entertainment, did strategically produce the video. As previously mentioned, the music video includes several big-name celebrities from Korea, each with their own fan-base to whom the video would automatically appeal to. PSY is already considered a part of K-pop, so many Korean fans would watch the video, and drawn in by the catchy song and novel choreography that PSY developed, share it with friends both locally and internationally. They used a “topical conversation point”, the Gangnam District, and the stereotypical, materialistic lifestyle it invokes to grab the attention of the Korean audience, which it then spread from internationally.
A specific scene that exceedingly illustrates the satirical nature of “Gangnam Style” is a mockery of a stereotypical American music video scene in which a rapper walks down a confetti-blasted red carpet. In his version, PSY mimics this while walking through a parking garage with two models at his side, being excessively blasted with pieces of trash: a comment on the overly materialistic social context surrounding the release of “Gangnam Style.” This scene also serves as an example of the cultural hybridity apparent throughout the production methods and reception of the video, which fuses American and Korean culture. In this paper, I argue that PSY’s “Gangnam Style” music video is an exemplifying result of today’s globalizing world that works within its structure. The video reflects cultural hybridity, described by Kraidy’s intercontextual theory of hybridity. Because of this hybridity element, the text appeals to many people in our current world of Tomlinson’s complex connectivity, where it is able to reach many people and thus gain rapid global popularity.
In post colonial theory, the concept of hybridity has lent itself to “many spheres of cultural research, theory, and criticism.” As Kraidy uses the term, “hybridity” mainly pertains to culture, but also insinuates meanings amongst topics of race, language, and ethnicity. In examining today’s cultural globalization, Kraidy identifies hybridity as a defining characteristic. The notion of hybridity is controversial due to its wide variety of uses, initiating debate about its “meaning, implications, and usefulness.” In post colonial thought, it would make sense from a historical standpoint that hybridity is sometimes contested due to historic apprehension towards sociocultural change, which hybridity represents.
At any rate, according to Kraidy, hybridity has recently become more relevant and visible in international media and communication studies. On a basic, more common level, hybridity has been used to describe “mixed genres and identities,” while on a more prolonged, yet rare front, it has been theorized as an actual communicative space or practice. Kraidy rejects the use of hybridity as a descriptive statement, suggesting instead that it should be considered a communicative practice “constitutive of, and constituted by, sociopolitical and economic arrangements,” using context as the driving force. Hybrid media texts, as I will argue that
“Gangnam Style” exemplifies, are the products of “a variety of historical, economic, and cultural forces whose enmeshments with one another are as manifest at local, national, and regional levels as they are visible globally.” Hybridity is at the core of Kraidy’s theory of critical transculturalism, which he defines as “a new international communication framework.” This framework views cultural hybridization as cultures interacting in both the production and reception of media texts, with global and local being not a dichotomy but mutually constitutive, and where globalization is the site of cultural hybridity.
Thus, in today’s globalizing world, it should be no surprise that hybrid media texts are becoming increasingly more widespread and popular. In large part due to their hybridity, they are able to reach larger audiences “with minimal investment and risk.” Furthermore, Kraidy states that “hybrid cultural forms are not anomalies in media globalization.” He explains that the omnipresence of hybridity marks “the growing synchronization of world markets.” Essentially, hybrid media texts have been popular to create especially because of the economic incentive involved. In a globalizing world, hybrid media can be distributed to a wider base, meaning greater exposure and thus greater profit. Instead of producing texts that appeal to only one culture, it would make more economic sense to produce culturally hybrid texts that appeal to a multitude of cultures. This includes even cultures that are different from the those represented in the media object. For example, some American media becomes wildly popular overseas among cultures it has few similarities to, whether the audience appreciates the media for its glimpse into American life, they can identify with certain aspects, or even be entertained by the sheer differences that the media portrays. Overall, it is of economic benefit to produce a text that can be received in multiple cultures.
According to The Atlantic, in South Korea, “The emphasis on heavy spending, coupled with the country’s truly astounding, two-generation growth from agrarian poverty to economic powerhouse, have engendered the country with an emphasis on hard work and on aspirationalism, as well as the materialism that can sometimes follow.” Gangnam, a district in Seoul, is symbolic of this materialism, holding seven percent of South Korea’s GDP in just fifteen square miles. Adrian Hong, a Korean-American consultant, told The Atlantic, “Koreans have been kind of caught up in this spending to look wealthy, and Gangnam has really been the leading edge of that.” “Gangnam Style” is PSY’s satirical take on this materialism, poking fun at these people caught up in spending, hoping to make people “laugh like crazy even in the midst of all this global economic slowdown.” Thus, his music video shows that content of media texts themselves can be shaped by the status of the economy, past being produced for economic gains.
At the same time, the power of the economy is not the only influence on the production of a hybrid text. Kraidy proposes an intercontextual theory of hybridity, which cites García-Cancilini’s idea that power does not work only vertically, rather power relations are interwoven and thus more effective. Kraidy gives his definition of the intercontextual theory of hybridity as focusing “on the mutually constitutive interplay and overlap of cultural, economic, and political forces in international communication processes.” This theory thus pushes past the economic determinism rooted in cultural imperialism and explains how hybridity serves as a certain discourse under which ideological elements can come together under certain contexts. Much of this paper’s discussion is centered on this aspect of hybridity in “Gangnam Style,” analyzing how the text incorporates cultures: intentionally, as interpreted by the viewer, and simply as a result of the context into which it was produced.
What Kraidy describes as hybridity is a characteristic of much of the media produced in today’s world, which Tomlinson describes as being laden with “complex connectivity.” His notion of complex connectivity is a theory of globalization that explains how people recently have begun to communicate and interact in the global village, doing so differently from before. Now, Tomlinson argues, the proximity across time and space created by global modernity (most notably technology) has brought people in contact who would never had the opportunity to communicate before, “causing distant events and powers to penetrate our local experience.” Though globalization “dissolves the securities of locality, it offers new understandings of experience in wider-ultimately global-terms.”
Tomlinson argues that the complex connectivity of globalization disrupts the sentiment of “local,” which in some cases can make it more difficult for people to identify certain media texts, for example, as wholly domestic. Kraidy’s theory of hybridity fits into Tomlinson’s discourse here, as the globalizing world lends hybridity to media. Due to the nature of complex connectivity, where interactions across time and space are unavoidable, it has become nearly impossible to designate a text as solely having influence from one specific culture. Cultures themselves have been hybridized to some extent through the structure of complex connectivity. Both the volume and content of information and interactions that people can now exchange across time and space “affects people’s sense of identity, the experience of place and of self in relation to place.” These are all aspects of culture, assuming the definition of culture to be anything or any way in which people make sense of the world. The deterritorialization that occurs in cultural globalization leads to this transformation of culture, as it can travel through Tomlinson’s global web of communicative connections and be continuously formed and reformed.
An example of a phenomenon made possible by Tomlinson’s web of connections and inscribed with Kraidy’s hybridity is the Korean Wave, which “Gangnam Style” is a product of. With its underpinnings in the 1990s in Asia, the “Korean Wave,” or hallyu, is the term initially used by the Chinese press to describe the widespread popularity of Korean popular culture outside of Korea. It is a phenomenon that was initiated and is still utilized by the Korean government as a tool to revitalize the economy. A seven percent loss in GDP resulting from the financial crisis of 1998 drove President Kim Dae-Jung to issue his Presidential Proclamation on Culture, which established both the Korea Institute of Design Promotion and the Korea Creative Content Agency. His Basic Law for the Cultural Industry Promotion in 1999 was backed by $148.5 million from the government. In 2002, 1.15 percent of the Korean government’s budget was set aside for cultural production, almost double that of 1998 (0.60 percent), marking an increased investment in Korea’s economic and cultural future under Dae-Jung.
Though the Korean Wave originated from and is still influenced by the government’s economic purposes, it has recently evolved from funding production through governmental budget support and grants to funding through joint ventures with foreign entities and independent producers, like PSY. “The Second Wave,” or hallyu 2.0, has become known as the development of the original Korean Wave from television dramas to music. Korean pop music singers, or “K-pop” singers, produce hybrid media that is popular both domestically and internationally. Chuyun Oh describes this hybridity as being “multicultural mutant Koreanness,” while some Western viewers criticize K-pop hybridity as imitating American culture.
Japanese popular culture has also been successful in spreading internationally, but the producers focus on making universal products. Korean producers, in contrast, concentrate on producing hybrid media. Hybrid Korean popular culture, like PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” is successful on the international front and has global appeal because of its “Koreanness.” The content is local, but also adjusts to “the needs and demands of local markets” abroad. “Gangnam Style,” as I argue, does so in large part through its parodies. This concept reflects glocalization, a 1990’s term that is a blend of global and localization, defined as “the fact of adapting products or services that are available all over the world to make them suitable for local needs.” Doobo Shim equates this idea to the practice of hybridity, giving an example of the hybridity expressed when local people “inscribe their everyday meaning” into global goods, conventions, and styles. This is reflective of Kraidy’s description of hybridity as the cultural interactions involved both in the production and reception of a text. Once again, largely through its “redaction” (new material fans produce that uses but edits the existing content) texts, “Gangnam Style” establishes itself as hybrid.
In order to be successfully distributed internationally, hybrid Korean pop culture media are created with the international audience in mind, which can be done both intentionally and unintentionally. This connects to Tomlinson’s notion of complex connectivity; without the recently developed proximity to others outside of the domestic sphere, Korean music videos like “Gangnam Style” would not even be accessible to international audiences, never mind appealing. This proximity “that comes from the networking of social relations across large tracts of time-space, causing distant events and powers to penetrate our local experience” has been made increasingly relevant most recently through the development of the Internet and social media platforms. One such platform is YouTube, on which Korean music videos such as “Gangnam Style” are distributed to an international audience. The digital age has offered innovative and effective routes through which Korean popular culture media is distributed, which have been key to the global success of hallyu.
Dal Yong Jin and Kyong Yook refer to the success of hallyu 2.0, which is characterized both by Korean popular culture’s increased popularity and its global reach, as being driven largely because of its integration into “a social media-driven cultural landscape,” today’s social mediascape. They cite “Gangnam Style” as the most prominent and fitting example of technology’s importance to hallyu 2.0, YouTube and Twitter being the main platforms through which its success increased exponentially. An initial spark that seemed to have set off the PSY phenomenon were two tweets that mentioned the video, one by @WeLoveDara, an overseas K-pop fan, and Scooter Braun, the famous entertainment manager that discovered Justin Bieber. Once “Gangnam Style” became successful on social media, traditional media forms like NBC’s Today Show began to feature PSY. Both the new and the old media combined “expedited the global sensation.” Thus, not only does the social mediascape initially influence fans on its own, but its influence is compounded by the spread across traditional media.
The social mediascape has also afforded fans the means to participate and engage with media. In an interview study of Korean popular culture fans conducted by Jin and Yoon, many respondents became fans firstly because of user-generated content, especially those who do not speak Korean. Most Korean popular culture, “Gangnam Style” included, are produced and distributed in Korean. That means that peer-produced translations and subtitles were necessary in the spread of the Korean Wave. Past these supplements to the media texts, information, opinions, and feelings about them were also shared by users, promoting the Korean Wave and making other users aware of the culture. One interviewee in Jin and Yoon’s study, a 20-year-old Canadian man, said “Korean stuff is shared, and it changes what I am exposed to and what I may like in the future… Social media is completely changing my experience through my peers.” Users share and remake the texts that appeal to them. This is exemplified in the case of “Gangnam Style,” of which fans created many parodies that further popularized the video.
Doobo Shim and Sun Jung conducted a study among Indonesian K-pop fans, in which YouTube was found to be the platform most desirable for accessing K-pop, closely followed by Twitter. In recent years, YouTube has been quickly gaining ground in terms of professionalized content that generates revenue for the site and producer alike. It is no longer a social distribution that provides solely user-generated content; major entertainment companies have begun to enter into partnerships with YouTube where advertising revenues are split. Major record companies have their own channels on YouTube where their content is posted and subsequently can be viewed by YouTube users, in order “to create synergies in production and distribution.” As Shim and Jung note, “Gangnam Style” was released on PSY’s management company (YG
Entertainment)’s official YouTube channel, on which revenues from advertisement are shared between YouTube and YG Entertainment. Along with YouTube, on Facebook and Twitter “Gangnam Style” was released to and spread among K-pop fan networks. This especially included YG’s other music artist networks, providing an effective distribution platform for the music video.
These Asian fan networks then assisted in spreading PSY’s video to a wider, international audience. “Gangnam Style” was exposed to the mainstream, most prominently through fans’ “redaction”, their parodies and interpretations, which add more value and meanings to the original text. This makes the text more relatable, approachable, and “interesting and fun to consume.” YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, the foremost three social platforms on which Korean pop culture pieces are distributed and shared, are “reciprocally and organically associated in their enhancement of the transnational flows of pop content through the global marketplace.” Essentially, all three networks complement and assist each other in the transnational spread of cultural material, accelerating the success and overall popularization of texts like “Gangnam Style.” These transnational flows of hybrid content through social media connections are highly representative of Tomlinson’s notion of complex connectivity in today’s globalizing world.
Another journal article, by Jung and Li, analyzes “Gangnam Style” specifically in the context of globalization. They argue that its success was determined by the cooperation of traditional and new media outlets, “the active participation of global audiences, the video’s spreadable hooks, a laissez-faire copyright policy, and the musician PSY’s marketing strategies.” They make reference to the beginning transnational spread of “Gangnam Style” being attributed to the translations provided by global K-pop fans and the Korean diaspora, as well as fan-created content like reaction videos, parodies, and blogs explaining some of the specific Korean culture behind the video. In their “second stage” of the transnational spread,
Shim and Jung note that celebrity mentions of the video, mainly on Twitter, and “Gangnam Style”-related videos created by professional entertainers and filmmakers both marked a “turning point” for its popularity. The “third stage” is characterized by mass media endorsement as well as a large increase in the production of parody videos, especially by YouTube celebrities, users who have millions of channel subscribers and thus, a large audience. Shim and Jung’s final “fourth stage”, which leads up until the date of publication (2014), notes the continuation of the cultural phenomenon’s momentum, with the continual uploading of more PSY concert videos and exponential increase of “Gangnam Style”’s view count.
Jung and Li state that “Gangnam Style” is “different from the typical K-pop music video,” attributing its differences mainly to the older, heavyset PSY as the singer, as well as its humor, parody, and bizarreness. They explain that PSY was successful in creating his video because he catered to the “B-class culture,” which highlights lowbrow taste, a “thug” spirit, and rebels against the “mainstream,” popular in South Korea due to a rising sense of individuality. Most YouTube users are of B-class cultures, meaning they can use “Gangnam Style” as an escape and a social critique during global economic recession, like PSY intended. PSY was also successful because of his decision with YG Entertainment to not enforce copyright infringement. This was key in allowing parodies and user-generated content to flourish and thus act as a marketing tool for their original production, resulting in financial benefit. Overall, Jung and Li’s analysis of “Gangnam Style” offers an objective view of how “Gangnam Style” achieved its global popularity and phenomenon status.
Including that of Jung and Li, there are several analyses of the success of “Gangnam Style,” specifically in light of the digital age, and there are many established communication theories relating to the PSY phenomenon that have been extensively researched and developed. However, scholars have yet to interpret the music video as an exemplifying result of some select communication theories that have been established. In my analysis, I enter both the “Gangnam Style” and globalization theory dialogues and attempt to use PSY’s creation as an example to bridge the two on a nuanced level that writers before me have not done. “Gangnam Style” exemplifies Kraidy’s theory of hybridity, and thus, critical transculturalism. The rise of social media use in Korean popular culture, as described by Kuwahara, Shim, Jin, and Yoon, is the main impetus that exposed the video to such a large and supportive international audience. I argue that this is representative of a concept Tomlinson described in 1999, albeit before most social media existed, as “complex connectivity.” Through the earlier discussion of different literatures, I connected “Gangnam Style” to established communication theories and ideas of scholars. The remainder of this paper will serve as a more in-depth and detailed discussion of the connections made between PSY’s music video and communication theory.
The entire plot and the themes that run throughout “Gangnam Style” were formulated as PSY’s response to the social context surrounding the video’s production. PSY produced his music video to include social commentary, satirizing the rampant materialism prominent in South Korea’s Gangnam District. Korean Blogger Jea Kim explained further to The Atlantic, describing the video as being “about how people outside Gangnam pursue their dream to be one of those Gangnam residents without even realizing what it really means.” According to her, Koreans are beginning to realize they may not actually want to follow the Gangnam example, and these growing ambivalent feelings are reflected in PSY’s music video. As a quote states earlier in this paper, he intended it to be for his fan base in Korea. This explains why some very specific cultural aspects of the video, mentioned before, may be lost on international viewers. Though this could seem contradictory, the text is still considered hybrid in Kraidy’s terms, in part because cultures interact in not only the production of the video, but also its reception. The content is local, but also adjusts to “the needs and demands of local markets” abroad, which “Gangnam Style” does so in large part through its parodies. By simply taking a closer look at “Gangnam Style”, one can easily see the subtext of materialism, which can appeal to many people worldwide whether they find it simply ridiculous, or very relatable, like it is for a materialistic culture such as the United States.
Each scene of “Gangnam Style” carries out PSY’s overarching theme of people pretending to be or aspiring to be what they are not; he depicts himself laying luxuriously on the beach being fanned by a beautiful woman, only for the viewers to realize shortly after that he is actually just on a playground. Later, PSY is spending time in a sauna, surrounded by gangsters rather than wealthy businessmen, and dances on a middle-aged-tourist-filled party bus rather than at a swanky, expensive nightclub. All the while, PSY is wearing flashy clothing and strutting around, seemingly taking part in Gangnam stereotypes at first look, but turning out to actually be taking part in lower-class, more “common,” and less materialistic activities. Thus, this theme is easy to relate to for the previously discussed “B-class” viewers on YouTube. Applying the earlier noted concept that a hybrid text such as “Gangnam Style” can still be successful among cultures which may not be similar to those part of the text, some cultures or nations without much materialism may still find the video appealing for other reasons. Since the video is hybrid, there can be many ways that the audience interprets and enjoys the text. At a most basic level, perhaps the audience watched the video for its humor and sheer entertainment factor, as PSY explained, “‘I just wanted to make something that was purely comedic – something that could make people laugh like crazy even in the midst of all this global economic slowdown.’” On a deeper level, an audience outside of the main cultures incorporated in the video may begin to appreciate “Gangnam Style” after being exposed to a translation of it in their native language or possibly a parody that relates more closely to their culture.
What PSY decides to do and include in each scene, especially where he designates the scenes to be filmed, is overwhelmingly influenced by current South Korean culture; his production choices are a clear, direct manifestation of his response to it. The success “Gangnam Style” acquired due to its theme of rejecting materialism mark how the “enmeshments” of culture in a media text, both constructed and accidental, create some of its hybridity. As also noted before, this hybridity appeals to global audiences, partly because it makes media texts more approachable in the sense that they are either related to the culture of the viewer, or the viewer interprets and enjoys the text in the way they see fit, sometimes participating in creation of “redaction” content. This explains in large part the success of “Gangnam Style” across the world, both in itself and its user-generated productions.
The user production of translations, parodies, and blog explanations of the content in “Gangnam Style” have further popularized the video among cultures outside of South Korea. These “redactions” were made possible through the distribution of “Gangnam Style” on YouTube and other social media sites, connecting fans across time and space. Its hybridity meant that the music video would be received uniquely by each international viewer, and thus allowed the viewers, as stated before, to interpret the content in ways relevant to their culture. In many cases, these interpretations were revealed and spread to other viewers, in the form of translations and parodies, influencing their interpretations and further establishing “Gangnam Style” as a hybrid music video while increasing its success.
Furthermore, through this fan-to-fan “redaction” and parody videos, the original text may become even more hybrid in terms of the meaning a fan takes away from it. For example, if a fan watches a parody version first, they might view “Gangnam Style” with an increased set of cultural meanings, adding to the inherent hybridity of the text, at least as interpreted by that fan. These relations among global viewers, made possible through social media like YouTube and Twitter, mark how PSY’s phenomenon worked through today’s globalizing world. and its structure of Tomlinson’s complex connectivity. In doing so, the video became extremely successful as a hybrid media text on the global market.
In Shim and Jung’s study, YouTube and Twitter were the most preferable platforms to viewers of Korean popular culture, and in the Jin and Yoon article, they were cited as the platforms through which “Gangnam Style” increased its success the most. Again, this shows that the video is a suitable representation for all K-pop of Tomlinson’s connections and influence formed through space and time over certain platforms. As Jung and Li explain, though it is not exactly typical K-pop material, enthusiastic K-pop fan networks on social media were the basis of “Gangnam Style”’s distribution to the global audience. Thus, without today’s complex connectivity that Tomlinson describes, it would have been impossible for PSY’s video to reach so many viewers.
The worldwide reception of “Gangnam Style” was clearly very positive. Again, the video generated two billion views on YouTube in just under two years after its release, making it the most-viewed in the platform’s history. As previously mentioned, after the first few times watching “Gangnam Style,” many international viewers may not have been able to easily identify the Korean rapper’s true meaning behind the production of the video, a satirical comment on the Gangnam District of South Korea, according to PSY himself “poking fun at those kinds of people who are trying so hard to be something that they’re not.” However, in the first year of its r
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