Friday, April 19, 2013

The Hidden Meanings of 'Gentleman' and 'Gangnam Style' are Completely Lost on Korea and the World (and Maybe Even on PSY)


This post follows on from an article I wrote for asiapundits last week, where I called into question the image that Psy is creating for himself, and that because the country is so much in his corner, the image of Korea in many people's eyes also. 

If you hadn't figured it out, yes there are hidden messages in Psy's new song 'Gentleman' so perhaps it isn't all that bad after all.  This maybe no surprise, but they are fiendishly difficult to detect for most and especially those who live outside Korea.  Let's analyse the song in a bit more detail.

The translated lyrics first:

-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
Gonna make you sweat
Gonna make you wet
You know who I am, west side
Gonna make you sweat
Gonna make you wet
You know who I am, west side
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman
I-I-I I’m a, I-I-I I’m a
I-I-I I’m a, mother-father-gentleman

I don't know if you know why it needs to be hot 
I don't know if you know why it needs to be clean 
I don't know if you know, it'll be a problem if you're confused 
I don't know if you know but we like, we we we like to party
Hey there
If I'm going to introduce myself 
I'm a cool guy with courage, spirit and craziness 
What you wanna hear, what you wanna do is me 
Damn! Girl! You so freakin sexy!
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a...
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a... 
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a...
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a... 
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a, ah I'm a
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a, ah I'm a
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a, ah I'm a
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman
I don't know if you know why it needs to be smooth
I don't know if you know why it needs to be sexy 
I don't know if you know darling, hurry and come be crazy 
I don't know if you know, it's crazy, crazy, hurry up

Hey there
Your head, waist, legs, calves 
Good! Feeling feeling? Good! It's soft 
I'll make you gasp and I'll make you scream 
Damn! Girl! I'm a party mafia!
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a...
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a... 
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a...
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a... 
Ah Ah Ah Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a, ah I'm a
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman
Gonna make you sweat.
Gonna make you wet 
You know who I am Wet PSY
Gonna make you sweat.
Gonna make you wet. 
You know who I am 
Wet PSY! Wet PSY! Wet PSY! Wet PSY! PSY! PSY! PSY! 


Ah I'm a mother father gentleman
I'm a,  ah I'm a 
I'm a mother father gentleman 
I'm a, ah I'm a, 
 I'm a mother father gentleman
Mother father gentleman
Mother father gentleman 

Source:
 http://www.policymic.com

Alright, so maybe the lyrics aren't that great, but we are assured that there is cutting satire at the heart of it all when combined with the video; I will let a blog in the Wall Street Journal explain:
  • If it ain’t broke: PSY could have appeased critics by releasing something completely different from his shock blockbuster; instead, he deliberately chose not to jolt fans, issuing a song that’s candidly similar in sound, and pairing it with a video that’s not just familiar, it’s arguably a direct continuation of the first viral clip — set in the same surreal version of Seoul and featuring many of the same characters. Which should make it clear that PSY is trying to…
  • Tell a continuing story: In case this needs reinforcement, the PSY we see in “Gangnam Style” and “Gentleman” is a fictional character; he bears little relationship to Park Jae-Song, the artist who plays that role (Park is, by all reports, a rather nice guy). But PSY, which is short for “psycho,” is a persona that Park has been workshopping for over a decade, across six albums, each of which can be seen as chapters in PSY’s evolution (they’re even more or less presented that way — after his debut, PSY from the PSYcho World, his subsequent releases have mostly been numbered, with his current EP, PSY 6, coming on the heels of his last full album PSYfive). People soon realized that “Gangnam Style” was more than just prankster dada — it was a sly, intentional riff on Korean materialism and classist inequality; “Gentleman” could be seen as planting the same satirical barb into the world of the gender dynamics of Korean society, which is decidedly male-dominated. No, Korean men don’t usually give women the stinkfinger or yank chairs out from under them — but, PSY seems to suggest, the way that males treat females in a patriarchal Confucian society isn’t really that different. He also allows Son Ga-In to give him his comeuppance at the video’s end, before closing off with scenes that show both Ga-In and PSY hilariously aping the cliche exotic-dancer inspired moves that mark both Western hip hop and a growing number of K-Pop videos. (I would be surprised if there weren’t at least a third chapter to the “PSY trilogy” that tips another of Korea’s sacred cows. PSY dancing in the DMZ? Haha, we’ll see. Meanwhile, the details above show how PSY is always careful to…
  • Pay attention to the little things: PSY is as close as you get to an artist-auteur as you’ll see in Korean pop music’s hyper-managed ecology — he writes his music and lyrics, co-directs his videos and actively participates in choreographing the outlandish dance moves that go with his grooves. (For “Gentleman,” he adapted the Brown Eyed Girls’ well-known “Arrogance Dance” from 2009’s “Abracadabra,” even paying a fee to that song’s choreography team, Yama & Hotchicks, for the right to do so.) PSY’s level of meticulousness can be seen in nuances like the hypnotically switching ponytails of the dancers during the song’s signature hipsway, as well as the song’s tongue-in-cheek gangsta elements — the “mother father gentleman” chorus and the shoutout at the end, not to the West Side, but to “Wet PSY.”
Let's do a little analysis of this shall we.

Point 1 

Psy is simply a genius for sticking with the same 'tired and tested' formula (sorry 'tried and tested'), he could have appeased his critics but he chose to do a song and video that are so similar that everyone who was happy with 'Gangnam Style' must surely be happy with 'Gentleman'.  Good on him.  Or could it just be that he could not have produced anything else and was worried that any originality would not create the desired response?

Point 2

He is a genius again this time for producing two songs that are so subtle in poking fun at first materialism and second the treatment of women in a patriarchal society like Korea.  It is surprising and shows greater depth to his music than anyone thought there could be.

Seeing as Psy is so smart, perhaps he should realise that the overwhelming message that both 'Gangnam Style' and 'Gentleman' sends is that of horsing around (quite literally), which there is nothing wrong with but let's not try to give it anymore credit than that.  The message is so subtle and so covered in dirt in the video of 'Gentleman' that you wouldn't know there was a message there at all unless you were told so.  The deeper message in 'Gentleman' is comparable to belching and farting the tune to REM's 'Everybody Hurts' and expecting those grieving lost loved ones to find it meaningful.  'Gentleman' is not likely to highlight or improve the plight of woman in a patriarchal Confucian society (unless he does some serious work outside of the song to campaign for better treatment), but there might be a few more farts flying in their faces and stolen bikinis. 

Since the release of 'Gangnam Style' I have not noticed Koreans or people from any other country changing the way they look at their increasingly materialistic lifestyles, the underlying statement of that song has gone almost completely unnoticed by people in his own country and it is therefore highly likely in the rest of the world also.  I can't also help but notice that Psy has promoted countless products in TV adverts since his big hit, including products from LG and Samsung, he also advertised beer, soju, facial products, Ramen and many more.  It seems that the hidden messages aren't even getting through to him.  He himself appears to be a Gangnam 'Oppa' and proud of it.

Point 3

He is a genius, he is a music artist that writes his own songs (not always) and co-directs his videos (rare in South Korea maybe, but not in the rest of the world).  He is also a genius for not coming up with an original dance routine but copying another one from another group and including them in the video.  Or could it just be that he was desperate to develop another crazy dance move and was finding it difficult to come up with anything that hadn't been done before.  Again, there really is nothing wrong with any of this, but let's not attribute any of this to nuance and genius.


There is more.  This post from the Korean Gender Cafe shows even more hints of Psy's refinement and meticulous nature in producing his music and videos.  I know he is from Korea, and it is understandable he is aiming all the subtlety at his Korean audience, but I wonder how many of them get it either.  Will they only understand these subtle messages if someone ends up pointing it out to them?

This post is turning into a bit of a rant on my part, and I am not usually persuaded to use this style of writing and perhaps I am wrong about Psy and he really is showing an extremely deep and meaningful side to his art.  He is certainly intelligent, I will give him that, he has produced a song that has rocked the world and now maybe a second, and they aren't even that good.  He must know what the people want.

I don't really dislike Psy or any of his work that much really, but the hype over it, and the meaning some are attributing to it, is starting to get my goat a little bit.  The tireless promotion and obsession about Psy by many South Koreans also makes me worry just how other countries will view Korean culture as a whole - as I wrote about in asiapundits - in that, although the deep hidden message isn't vulgar and crude, the crassness of it all is precisely what most of the world will see and the obsessive pride Koreans have in it. 

I wonder what the true motivation for making his music videos really is.  Is it to highlight problems in society and bring about social change or is it simply to be clever?  Or is to make a crude video that gets panned by supposed intellectuals just so he can then turn round and say 'haha, I am really smarter than you, you didn't see all this stuff.'  He is right most of us did need some help to see it, but it is still simply an excuse for a crude video in my eyes.  Bit of fun, maybe, enlightened and concerned social commentator and activist, I don't buy it.

Psy is smart, no doubt, and many attribute more to his music than there is to see at first glance, so if he is so smart why can't he see that his style is counter-productive to getting any deeper information over to the public?  Perhaps it really is not his intention to convey anything deep, just to create an interesting piece of music and video, but he does seem to take extraordinary care in placing these subtle aspects into his music.  The problem is, however, the serious stuff can't be taken seriously when the overall tone is so crude.  To me it seems a bit of a waste of time to put all this time in to a video that hardly anyone will understand and, if they do, will largely ignore anyway.  But who knows, maybe that is why I am not a successful music artist.

One other thing I am curious about, is if I were really concerned about how people in my country were too materialistic, or too misogynistic I would be really anxious to make sure my music was understood for what the true meaning is.  Maybe I am wrong, but Psy doesn't seem too bothered that the vast majority of his audience don't care for or at least don't notice his messages.  I don't know anything about the man, so this is just a theory; I think that he is not too worried as long as the money and the youtube views keep rolling in, but I am waiting to be proved wrong about that.

'Gentleman' is simply bad taste, full-stop, no amount of disguised nuance can take that away and the vast majority of all those millions that will watch on youtube and buy his music will take the childish messages rather than the enlightened ones.  I don't want to sound snobby but his kind of music will not appeal to the kind of people who will understand or receive the nuance meaning of it all. 

Each to his own, and if 'Gentleman' is as successful as 'Gangnam Style' you would have to say well done.  I am not knocking the guy really, if he wants to produce music and videos like this, then great, but let us not big him up to anything other than finding a formula that is appealing to the masses.  I would urge Korean people not to get too preoccupied with promoting him (or using him to promote Korea) because the association could very well end up back-firing on the culture at large in the long-run.  Without the hype, honestly, is the music really that good and is it really worth being proud of?






9 comments:

  1. I have the same sentiments. The video was disgusting. I had to wash out my eyes and brain with dettol after wasting 3:45 minutes of my life on it. It was just crass. Every single thing in the video - the pulling off tops off girls, bullying kids, the dirty dancing around the poles with Ga-In. Just.. disgusting.

    It didn't come off classy or artsy or whatever people are trying to argue for it. It was just utter garbage and looked really cheap. Like he spent a $100 on the set and filmed the whole thing in an hour. And yes, the messages in teh song (if any) are all lost on me too.

    Plus what in the world is mother-father-gentleman? Was it purposely inserted to make it sound like mother-f*****-gentleman? CAuse thats exactly what I heard when I heard this garbage song.

    I could go on.. but I will stop.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, it was a horrible song and horrible video and no amount of hidden meanings can save it. It simply felt like cheap sensationalist nonsense in order to be popular.

      'Mother Father' is a little saying that has been going around middle and high school students in Korea for a while as another way of saying mother f**ker. It is a pretty childish thing to put into the main line of a song, and once again not original.

      Delete
    2. But that's the whole point of "Gentleman" though -- it's to ridicule that exact dirty side of cultures/media. He does overexaggerate them, but in my opinion those are intended. You are supposed to feel disgusting, expecially after he says "Gentleman" because he clearly isn't one at all. He blatantly puts out there how some people are proud of their naughty/childlike actions, and how they are absolutely disgusting.

      Being a Korean myself and being able to understand all the words in the lyrics, I probably had bigger disappointments than you at first. But I listened to it for the second time, which actually made me think twice about what the song is trying to say. I have always liked Psy (since like 9 years ago) for being cynical -- he rarely made a song that does not make fun of something.

      I guess I could go on as well, but I agree that the video is disgusting (as well as dance moves), and they are supposed to be.

      Delete
    3. Psy is definitely smart because he has made himself immune from criticism. So he can make a poor taste video and if we don't like it and say it is terrible song and video that only appeals to the lowest common denominator in society, his defenders can come right back and say, 'it is deeper than that, look what you've missed'. If on the other hand we see the deep side, but comment that his style is counter-productive and actually might encourage the things he is making fun of (like the harassment of women), we are told that it is all just a bit of fun and to stop being so serious and that it was never meant to be deep and meaningful.

      Just as I wrote in the post I think the video and song is about as meaningful as burping and farting 'Everybody hurts' by REM to a grieving person. Some things are bad taste and vulgar, full stop, regardless of the subtle hidden meanings.

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  2. None of this analysis matters for two reasons.

    First, the bulk of the audience for his music now lives outside of Korea. They don't understand Korean and never will. When you hear Gangnam style at a go go bar in Thailand, it has nothing to do with the words. As Masta Killa famously remarked, "The dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum."

    Second, Koreans in-country will never get any messages out of the songs even if they are present, completely unaccustomed as they are to any sort of politicization or meaning in the arts (understandable after decades of reactionary rule and the force of government censorship the National Security Act, and living in the shadow of giant chaebol corporations that dominate all of society, including television and film). In their nationalist fervor to be seen in the world, they'll push a song like Gangnam Style as an example of "how great Korea is" and "how much the world envies Korean society" completely missing that it was a satirical take on that very society.

    The fact is K-Pop is a horrid, wretched monstrosity. It's one of the worst examples of commercialized "art" to ever fall out of the ass of late capitalism, and that's really saying something in the world of "reality television".

    Psy is the apex of this atrocious, decadent garbage. He has all the spine of a jellyfish (recanting his singing of a song opposing the more than half-century of US military occupation of his country so he could keep up his newly found international fame, and especially, meet celebrity commander-in-chief of the American war machine Obama, which makes him perhaps the worlds all time greatest sell out). He's a perfect fit for the kind of manufactured air biscuits that Seoul City has perfected and an unaware mass audience as asleep with their eyes open in full daylight as they are in the middle of the night.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with you, the whole point of the article was to point out what Psy thinks it means and some of his fans in the media, then to show that it really is meaningless drivel after all. Something that, you're right, most of us already knew.

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  3. K-Pop is a cheap imitation of American pop, which itself is a shitty knock off of real music created by giant record corporations solely to make money.

    What makes K-Pop worse is not only that it's a copy of a copy (which will always be of lesser quality), but that (1) the K-Pop "artists" are manufactured through a regulated process aimed at creating marketable products out of people, and (2) the K-Pop "artists" have absolutely no relation to the cultures they seek to emulate. There's zero influence of Korean culture, music or history. It's all poor mimicry of American music and imagery. What does a preppy middle class Korean girl with plastic surgery know about the blues or break dancing? What does Psy know about Hip Hop and its origins in the suffering and rebellion of the poor and oppressed?

    The answer is "nothing," which is exactly what fans of K-Pop know about real music.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, spot on if you are a music purist. Most of Asia does seem to really like it, though. In the West not so much, but the vulgar crowd got sucked in to Psy's silly dance moves and electrical drum beat (as the previous person to comment mentioned).

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    ReplyDelete