10/01/2012 08:42 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

The Great Psy

My colleagues and students at Kyung Hee University in Seoul have been asking me if I have any idea why Psy's "Gangnam Style" has been so ecstatically embraced in the U.S. The South Korean culture industry has been desperately trying to crack the U.S. market with bubblegum pop performed by earnest idol groups; yet it was a dapper misfit's ironic take on the vacuous culture of consumption here that slammed cultural imperialism into reverse and made Americans dance to a Korean tune for a change.

This could be a sign of things to come. In an email exchange, Dr. Stephen Epstein, Director of the Asian Studies Program at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, suggested that:

This is the first announcement that the Pacific Century has arrived in not just political and economic but (pop) cultural terms. 20 years from now, I think people are going to talk about "Gangnam Style's" viral popularity as a watershed moment in the way that Asia has fully impressed itself on global culture as a result of the ICT triumvirate of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

In the video, Psy performs as a wannabe Gangnam playboy. As most people outside Korea probably know by now, Gangnam is a super-wealthy area of Seoul, home to the nouveau riche, a high-rise, high-density Korean version of West Egg. The old money Korean East Eggers posted up long ago near the Blue House to ensure that the owners of the large corporations that run the country have easy access to the president.

In Korea's famous soap operas, Gangnam is the ritzy core of the Korean Dream, the place people fight, cheat, cry and die for. Securing an apartment in Gangnam is a symbol of moving on up. Securing a spot in one of Gangnam's four main high schools means your children will keep moving on up. Gangnam represents what class warfare looks like in Korea and is thus both intensely desired and resented, a contradiction brilliantly and hilariously captured by Psy.

This wannabe Gangnam playboy, agent and victim of the Korean Dream should be rather familiar to U.S. audiences, for he has a literary ancestor that goes by the name of Jay Gatsby.

Both Psy's Gangnam playboy and Gatsby are variations of Thorstein Veblen's gentleman of leisure, specialized consumers who demand only the best in clothing, cars and coffee. The Gangnam playboy and Gatsby both fashion an imaginary identity through their consumption of luxury goods in order to impress a "classy girl," and their desperate pursuit of class and classiness makes them look and sound ridiculous. The playfully comic "Gangnam Style," and the darkly tragic The Great Gatsby are both indictments of dreams built on a hollow foundation of conspicuous consumption.

When I first moved to Seoul, I was mesmerized by the glamor, decadence and celebrities I observed in some of the nightclubs in Gangnam, where on blue dance floors "men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and stars."

But just as Nick Carraway's feelings about Gatsby's parties darken as the novel progresses, so have my impressions of Gangnam. The last time I was in a fancy nightclub in the area, I pestered people with the inane observation that it was "just like one of Gatsby's parties." For the record, this is not the best way to acquire friends or get a date. The VIP area, like all VIP areas, appeared to be filled with careless people who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made... " As the real Psy put it while filming the video, "Human society is so hollow."

Or as one of my professors from graduate school recently told me, "You're too old to be going to nightclubs, John."

Some critics have suggested that the popularity of "Gangnam Style" in the U.S. has to do with the fact that it is exotic and perpetuates Asian stereotypes. One editorial repeatedly and angrily describes Psy as "fat" and states that he is desexualized, thus fitting a racist mold cast by figures ranging from Fu Manchu to Long Duk Dong. Psy isn't "fat," and even if he were, people can be "fat" and sexy at the same time. This Gangnam playboy isn't a geek, doesn't quote Confucius, doesn't do martial arts, isn't a delivery boy and it sure doesn't look like he's having any trouble getting laid. If this were Mean Girls, he'd be sitting in the cafeteria with the other cool Asians.

But the horse dance could end up becoming the new kung fu, a kind of minstrel show that Asians and Asian Americans are expected to perform. At a recent performance in Seoul by the Korean rap group Drunken Tiger, lead member Tiger JK was exhorted by some drunken white people in the audience to do Psy's horse dance, which triggered this pissed off tweet:

"Just cuz I don't dance when i spit. Don't mean I'm frontin. I salute my homie PSY success. But I don't have to dance for you cuz I'm Asian."

"Gangnam Style" may contain elements of the exotic, but not of the orientalist variety. Rather, I think it's a kind of Asian capitalist exotic. From "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" to Cribs, from Gatsby's mansion to The Queen of Versailles, Americans love looking at bizarre displays of wealth and faux fabulousness. At the end of the day, there is very little difference between Honey Boo Boo and Paris Hilton. U.S. viewers are watching the hollow lifestyle they've exported to the world confidently and strangely reflected back at them in the form of a synchronized horse dance as PSY's over-the-top, parodic performance of a goofy Korean Gatsby figure adds a new twist to a familiar trope.

Oh, and the song and dance are pretty catchy, too.