A phenomenon called Gangnam Style has captured the world in a frenzy of Korean lyrics, imaginary horses, flash mobs, and parodies that include Elton to Romney style.
Yes, Gangnam Style is an unexplained phenomenon that took the world by surprise, but there is a hidden reality behind this video’s popularity. We may not know it yet, but PSY and Gangnam Style represent the End of History 2.0. But to begin, let’s go back to the end of the Cold War.
Global Perspectives In the Post Cold War Era
The unexpected end of the Cold War shocked the world and prompted endless analysis and speculation from academics. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man heralded the end of the Cold War as the victory of liberal democracy as the ultimate form of government. Discrediting Marx’s predictions of the evolution of capitalist societies towards communism, Fukuyama suggested that the end of the Cold War was unlike any other historical event.
It was a unique transition that marked the “endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and universalization of Western liberal democracy.” It was an end to the ideological struggle between communism and capitalist democracies once and for all. However, as finalized as the theory sounded, it was not well received and, 20 years later, saying that it is on shaky grounds is an understatement.
In 1992, another explanation was presented in Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World. Moving the focus from the political to the social, it suggested that the 21st century will be shaped by tensions between market forces that seek to homogenize the world and tradition-oriented local forces that attempt to preserve their diversity.
This theory seemed to have more validity when globalization did not transform every culture into a clone of Western society, but rather took on local colors. An extreme example would be McDonald’s efforts to cater to local tastes and cuisine depending on the regional taste buds. For a while, it was uncertain whether the engine of globalization or the resistance of local traditions would triumph.
PSY’s success may help to answer this question.
Gangnam Style – Episode III: Return of the End
Gangnam Style seems to indicate that the global has triumphed over the tribal. Its music video is a mix of cosmopolitan heroes, jogging, yoga, coffee culture, sports cars, nightlife, equestrian symbols of wealth, and Pop music’s “sexy ladies”. That is the reason that a Korean-language song was understood across cultural barriers: Western imagery is a universal in everybody’s minds. Carly Rae Jaspen’s earworm “Call Me Maybe” did noteven come close to penetrating all the markets that PSY did despite being mentioned during Colin Powell’s interview on CBS. A goofy man rapping in Korean sold better than a girl next door singing about her teenage crush in English. Whose culture is global now?
Gangnam Style Everywhere
Gangnam-gu is one of the 25-gus (or districts) of Seoul and is the most expensive one to live in, with real estate valued at twice the capital’s average. It is a rising financial and business center with growing influence. In 2010, it hosted the G-20 Summit and in 2012, the international Nuclear Security Summit. According to the National Geographic, it is “Wall Street, Cape Cod and Beverly Hills all wrapped into one”. Think of a mix of Champs-Elysées and le 16eme arrondissement à Paris, Presnensky District and Rublyovka in Moscow, or Otemachi, Ginza and Shibuya in Tokyo. This list can continue.
These very places, however, tend to be regarded with ambivalence. On one hand, they are centers of national pride, modernity, and economic prestige. On the other hand, these places are the breeding grounds of elitism and snobbery. In this sense, they are the vestiges of inequality. To the extent that a person’s perspective about his or her social standing is relative, these districts’ presence is an unrelenting reminder about their inaccessibility to the average wage earner.
This social ambivalence is captured by the lyrics of Gangnam Style. PSY raps of a “classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee” and “a guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down”. Please note that Starbuck’s coffee prices are twice as high in Gangnam as in the US, in US dollar terms. Then, when the character in the full yellow body suit drives away, PSY raps that he has “bulging ideas rather than muscles”. Superficial wealth becomes secondary to intelligence.
The remaining symbolism of jogging, yoga, tennis and horses depicts a desired lifestyle of the affluent. This desire for ascendency is ironized throughout the clip with the camera zooming out to show the full playground rather than the expected beach or the shady characters in a sauna rather than the expected elite spa. Aspirations for Gangnam Style are evoked and immediately satirized.
Perhaps there is recognition to be given to the catchy tune and the original moves, but there is more to it. The full scope of symbolism and irony of different snapshots is probably lost to non-Koreans, but the basics are global. As the younger generations, among which this song is most popular, climb career ladders and shape the world, the global forces will only self-reinforce. Moreover, these dualities of perception will come to dominate as ever more emerging economies push forward and erect their own Gangnams
Gangnam Style Is the End of History
Gangnam Style’s success demonstrates that tribalism, the persistent loyalty to local culture and tradition, is succumbing to globalization, the homogenizing effect of increasing interconnectedness. Globalism and tribalism have reshaped the world since the 1990s, but 2012’s hit Gangnam Style is confirming that these two forces are not symmetric. Globalism is winning, and Benjamin Barber’s dialectic is coming to an end in a new synthesis. PSY’S Gangnam Style exhibits tribalism in national inside jokes, cameo
appearances and party buses for the mature demographic. However, it is somehow all too familiar and the goofy irony needs no translation from a not-so-international language. In this celebration of the end of history, one wonders whether Mr. Jim Young Kim of the World Bank will be the next to show off Gangnam Style moves.