Savvy, global do-gooding Gangnam Style!!

It all started on July 15, 2012 with this:

Since then, Korean entertainer PSY’s music video “Gangnam Style” has shot up to being YouTube’s most watched Korean pop (K-pop) song EVER. As I write this, #Gangnamstyle is garnering 10+ tweets a minute months after its debut. There are clearly some lessons to be learned here. As cheesy as the whole thing looks on face value, there are some very specific things about this global pop phenomenon that we can learn as savvy, global do-gooders. Here they are:

1) There is power in being chubby - OK, so this might be a weird point to lead with but part of the hidden power of this music video is PSY’s ability to go where K-pop normally does not. He does not take himself too seriously. Whereas the usual K-pop fare is singers looking sexy and singing about lust and romance, PSY uses his own portly frame and less-than-perfect looks to disarm us. And by allowing the whole world to chuckle on his behalf, he injects steroids into his reach. Think about it – a svelte, GQ-looking guy would not have been able to pull this off. The song is mocking in its tone, and the mockery start with light self-mockery.  It works. Which brings me to my next point…

2) The whole thing is a parody – The whole point of the song is that PSY is mocking the Gangnam lifestyle. Gangnam is the ritziest part of Seoul. My wife Jammie worked in Gangnam for 6 months a few years ago while we were dating. I visited her there. Gangnam is the Beverly Hills of Seoul. It was oozing with wealth and excess. And PSY is being provocative about mocking its excesses. Parody is powerful. Especially when it is genuinely entertaining. How have you employed the power of parody for the cause of savvy, global do-gooding?

3) Soft power is real power - The reason political and industry leaders in Korea go ga ga over someone like PSY is that he bolsters the Korean brand without seeming domineering or arrogant. The song is fun. It is self-deprecating and it generates a lot of positive buzz about Korea and its growing ability to influence the world entertainment stage. Check this clip out. PSY, interrupts Ellen de Generes to insist on introducing himself as PSY from Korea. His national identity is extremely important to him…

Learning to use this kind of soft power is critical for savvy, global do-gooders. Raw domination is, increasingly, an antiquated currency. How can you bolster your soft power reserves? Charm is a subtle yet effective tool. Use it.

4) Cultural fusion is king – East meets West in this song. Apart from the obvious – PSY blending some English into a mostly Korean-language song – there is a fusion of dance styles. You’ve got some Western dance moves blending with PSY’s own unique “horse riding”.  Also, you have symbols of both Western and Eastern excess littered all over the video’s landscape.  Fusion is powerful because it is different, it is buzz-worthy, it allows borrowing from the best of multiple cultures.

Global travelers are often more flexible and creative than their landlocked counterparts because they are capable of blending cultures and ideas from many different places as they problem solve.  Don’t neglect the power of cultural fusion in your savvy, global do-gooding.  Draw on the experience and perspective of your international friends and make sure that you personally are on a constant quest to better understand the international landscape.

5) Vibe trumps language barriers every time - The beauty of something that communicates as strongly as Gangnam Style is that we don’t even have to speak Korean to dig the strong, overall vibe. The story line that has PSY trying to find the perfect girlfriend who knows when to be classy and when to be crazy is almost beside the point. The song is about trying too hard and failing. The sheer vibe transcends all this. The over-the-top style of the performance strikes a very human chord that transcends cultural or language barriers. How can you learn to communicate on a level that allows you to vault over intercultural challenges?

What else have you gleaned from thinking about Gangnam style in terms of what we can learn from it to advance the cause of savvy, global do-gooding? Tell me in the comment section.



6 thoughts on “Savvy, global do-gooding Gangnam Style!!”

  1. ahhh i am living under a rock cos i’ve never heard of this until now!!
    my first exposure was literally yesterday at the end of marie forleo’s latest interview with Derek Helpburn (sp?) on there’s a funny surprise ending.. so random. but i didn’t get the whole context because i had no idea what the song was. and i’ve never even heard of gangnam. but i get it.. like makati then right? this is hilarious and i love it!!!

    1. YES, like Makati:) So jealous that you are moving there… Gangnam style just won’t leave me alone… it’s all over the radio over here too…

  2. My brother just showed me this last weekend, somehow I hadn’t seen it before. But since then I’m suddenly seeing it everywhere (funny how that works). One thing I find really cool about his video/song, is it’s ability to span cultural boundaries here in the U.S. I teach at a “diverse” school (diverse here simply meaning non-white, since it’s 90% African american), and I have black, latino, and filipino students who all love this song. I have seen youtube parodies of it by college jocks and cheerleaders as well as Minecraft-playing nerds. I think it’s appeal reaches further than than the Soulja Boy phenomenon (or even further back, the Macarena), because it comes from a foreign source, which makes it non-threatening to US cultural groups; it’s not a Latin song or a Rap song, or a Country song or whatever. In some ways I think it’s easier for people to accept something that is completely foreign in origin as opposed to coming from a different cultural group in this country. Of course as you pointed out it isn’t completely foreign, there is a lot of fusion going on in this, and it’s done is such a fun, goofy way it strikes just the right balance and appeals to us on a basic human level.

      1. Sure, I’d be up for doing a post. Are you talking about me just describing what it is like for me trying to relate to, understand, and work with my students?

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