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Theological Reflections on "Gangnam Style"

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This post is co-authored by Dr. Joseph Cheah.

Psy's "Gangnam Style" made history again on Friday, May 31, 2014, when it garnered over 2 billion views on YouTube. Since it was originally uploaded on YouTube on July 15, 2012, it has taken 159 days for the iconic horse-dance routine, a chubby, middle-aged man dancing on his invisible horse, to reach 1 billion views, and another 525 days to surpass the 2 billion views mark. Though the "Gangnam Style" fever is no longer in full swing, its popularity has shown no signs of letting up. What are some of the factors leading to the popularity of "Gangnam Style"? What does the popularity of "Gangnam Style" have to say about our racialized society? How do people of different cultures interpret "Gangnam Style" within the framework of their respective culture?

In our book, Theological Reflections on "Gangnam Style," we provide a theological analysis to the historical, social, sexual, racial and cultural implications of Psy's music video "Gangnam Style" and tackle the pressing issues of hegemonic masculinity, racialized bodies, mimicry, and racism.

The popularity of "Gangnam Style" owes no small part to the advent of the internet which disseminated Psy's music video, originally intended for consumption of native Koreans, and made it available the world over. In other words, while Psy had no intention of deliberately circulating his music video beyond the boundaries of South Korea; but, once "Gangnam Style" went viral, Psy became the first Asian singer to break into the mainstream of American music industry. Yes, prior to Psy, no Asian or Asian American had been a leading entertainer or pop singer on the American music market. This is due not to the lack of Asian singers as there are plenty of K-pop singers who are making huge waves in Asia. Psy is the first and the only Asian male thus far who "has made it" in the American music scene. It is a milestone that would not go unnoticed -- especially by Asians and Asian Americans.

The fact that Psy is the first Asian to break into the American music industry prompts the question of whether his achievement was due in part to the ways in which Psy fits into the negative stereotypes of Asian male deeply inscribed in the American history? Or was his success due solely to his musical talent, charismatic personality, catchy music video and easy to mimic dance routine? The break-out success of Psy's music video, "Gangnam Style" has evoked reactions from Internet bloggers and academics concerning whether we are "laughing at Psy" or we are "laughing with Psy."

The popularity of "Gangnam Style" prompts us to rethink about the relationship between the margins and the center. Using Jung Young Lee's theology of marginalization, we examine the relationship between the margins and the center not as polar opposites but as an interactive dynamic of the two socio-political locations. Western music comes with Western privilege and, like white privilege, this type of agency does not need to crossover to the margins because Western pop stars are already idolized the world over. Psy, however, became popular without attempting to crossover to the center. The Internet phenomenon spread his music video, originally intended for consumption by native South Koreans, and made it available the world over without translation or reinvention and, consequently, provides us with multiple sites of creativity and ingenuity.

The manner in which Gangnam is viewed by people of different cultures depends on how they perceive and interpret a phenomenon. The music video, "Gangnam Style," may be catchy and the dance routine may be simple to follow, but the sociocultural and political factors within which this phenomenon is perceived and interpreted varies from one culture to the next and from one subculture to the next within the same country. Each group's context is specific to its own group. No single group views and listens to "Gangnam Style" in the same particular way which causes different reactions to the same phenomenon. In South Korea, "Gangnam Style" can be mocked for various reasons in and between people of different classes, but for those living outside of Korea's geographical and cultural context, we must approach Psy's work with lenses that incorporate our own socio-cultural circumstances.

When examining "Gangnam Style" phenomenon in the U.S., one cannot discount the perspectives of Asian Americans and the ways in which Asian male bodies have been desexualized and feminized in American media, and how the representations of Asian American men in the movies have been limited by predetermined acceptable roles such as those of the geek, clown, gangster or martial artist. In other words, Psy may be popular in the U.S. in part because he fits some of these negative characterizations of Asian men deeply inscribed in our racialized and sexualized history. The way we respond to Psy's "Gangnam Style" tells us something about ourselves and our standing in society. In short, one cannot simply overlook the various cultural contexts the subject has become immersed in when analyzing the "Gangnam Style" phenomenon.

Whether we are "laughing at" or "laughing with" Psy, our laughter has an ethical dimension, grounded in the principle of human dignity that we are made in the image and likeness of God. If we are made in the image of God, to ridicule someone for the way God created him/her is in effect to ridicule the very self of God. This kind of laughter belittles another and causes pain and hurts. However, authentic laughing with someone can affirm the dignity of the human person. Such laughter can unite us with people of different culture and background. It can make life tolerable when we find ourselves in adverse situation that is unbearable. It can help us cope with circumstances that would otherwise consume us. As such, our laughter can give value and dignity to the human person, or it can bring out the disdainful aspects of human nature in treating others as objects of ridicule and objectification.

Dr. Joseph Cheah is associate professor of comparative theology at the University of Saint Joseph. He is the author of Race and Religion in American Buddhism (2011) and is co-editor with Grace Ji-Sun Kim for Palgrave McMillian book series, Asisan Christianity in Diaspora.