RETROSPECTIVE: Gangnam Style turns 10

Harry Gay navigates through the viral sensation’s far-reaching impact: from The Annoying Orange to Noam Chomsky, and everything in between.

July 15, 2022 marked the tenth anniversary of PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ release into the world. In that time, this South Korean pop hit has had a lasting legacy that has shaped the cultural zeitgeist more than one might think.

Inspired by the theatricality of Freddie Mercury from a young age, Park Jae-sang began his music career in 1996, developing a talent for musical instruments and composition while abroad in the US. A shortening of the word ‘psycho’, his stage name PSY was an attempt to evoke his craze and love for music, as well as his over-the-top performing style.

PSY released his first album in January 2001. While he was a popular artist in the East, it wasn’t until 11 years later that he found international success with the infamous ‘Gangnam Style’. His sixth studio album, Psy 6 (Six Rules), was released July 15, 2012, and featured the enigmatic track. By August 14 that same year, it had ranked first on YouTube’s ‘Most Viewed Videos’ monthly chart, owing to the accompanying music video’s outlandish visuals, iconic dance moves, and catchy yet absurd lyrics.

The song’s lyrics describe PSY – a “man with lumpy ideas rather than muscles” –  attempting to court a “sexy lady”. The video features PSY lounging outside of a playground while sipping a cocktail, shuffling in a stable, leaning his head on another man’s shoulder in a sauna, walking away from explosions, pelvic thrusting above guys in elevators, and screaming at arses. All in all, it’s a love letter to Gangnam-gu, a district in Seoul, South Korea.

For those who don’t remember, the internet of 2012 was a very different beast to what we see today. As with anything popular, a suite of parody versions came in the song’s wake. Everyone jumped on the trend, from The Annoying Orange, to CollegeHumor. This era also foreshadowed the overflow of personalities from other media making their way to YouTube and thus clogging up everyone’s feeds and drowning out smaller creators, with Fitzy and Wippa creating a parody of the song and even Jay Leno hopping on the trend. The most egregious example would have to be Bart Baker’s painfully unfunny rendition, ‘cleverly’ changing the wording from “Oppa Gangnam Style” to “Hot Dog Condom Style” – a true wordsmith.

However, as music critic Todd in the Shadows pointed out at the time, these parodies fell flat, largely because the song and subsequent video itself is a parody. Shifting the song to make jokes about something else, or just recreating the imagery of the video, is not doing anything but repeating the same jokes PSY was making. The original song was absurd, so it becomes even more absurd to wring some extra comedic material out of it – like doing a parody of Waiting for Godot, or a spoof of Scary Movie 3.

Aside from song parodies, ‘Gangnam Style’ was sweeping the nation. PSY won the “Best Video” Award at the MTV Europe Music Awards, beating out Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rhianna. The video became the most viewed video in YouTube history, surpassing Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ – it currently sits at four billion views. A “Korean Wave” was sweeping the nation, and everyone was getting drenched, including then president Barack Obama, who described how his daughter’s taught him “a pretty good Gangnam Style”. Britney Spears was also taught the dance by PSY himself on the much maligned talk show Ellen.  Even famous linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky couldn’t help riding the wave, gloriously declaring “Oppan Chomsky Style” over sips of tea. Though PSY’s follow-up song, ‘Gentleman’, was  not as catchy or memorable as this monster hit, the song still saw success, and there were no signs of the hype train (the ‘PSYpe train’?) slowing down anytime soon.

In the years since, controversy followed the South Korean pop star. While the singer was no stranger to pot-stirring, having been fined by authorities for “inappropriate content” on his debut album, -this time it was displayed on the international stage. The main drama revolved around his anti-American imperialism stance, withparticular lyrics resurfacing that expressed desires to kill and torture American soldiers. Performing at a protest against the US presence in Iraq, PSY sung the following lyrics:

Kill those fucking Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives

Kill those fucking Yankees who ordered them to torture

Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers

Kill them all slowly and painfully

He later issued an apology directed at the US military and the American people.

‘Gangnam Style’ very quickly fled into the peripheries of the Western consciousness – it was no longer the big thing, the latest fad, but a passing memory. In the years since, however, its ripples can be felt throughout society.

One of the clearest examples is how the song sparked the “Korean Wave”, which would soon prove to be a mere brush of the tide compared to the oncoming tsunami that came rocketing through in the latter half of the 2010s. Most famously, we had BTS become a massive international success, even garnering their own McDonald’s tie-in meal!

In a morbid turn of events, death even trailed the song, as a man lost his life in 2015 performing the music video’s famous dance. Legs akimbo and arms swinging around, the UK IT manager collapsed in the middle of an office Christmas party. There were even theories swirling around in 2012 that the song heralded the end times, with it suggesting that the apocalypse would commence once the video hit a billion views.

This macabre aura would follow the song into the 2020s as it became an almost gothic anthem for suppressed trauma. A TikTok trend in March 2022 saw people reveal their most traumatic memories and horrific life events for millions of unassuming viewers, accompanied by the humorous juxtaposition of this absurd pop song. After the song buried itself into our subconscious, it seemed to have returned from this uncanny realm, carrying with it memories once thought hidden or suppressed.

As a result, I am now coining The Gangnam Style Theory of Eternal Return, wherein every 10 years, I theorise PSY’s 2012 hit will see a resurgence in some strange or uncanny way. Look out for 2032 when the song makes its inevitable return. Mark your calendars!

With ‘Gangnam Style’ celebrating its tenth anniversary, I feel a mix of nostalgia but also secondhand embarrassment. On one hand, while I found the song annoying in its day, it has grown on me as a fun party anthem, and is a lot smarter than one initially suspects. But it also forced me to dig through and remember a whole oasis of 2012 internet cringe. I can recall when all of these celebrities were jumping on the trend, and people were trying to make parodies of the song, and it was just as lame as it is now.

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