"Gangnam Style" & Evangelisation

A minor musical phenomenon has been the Korean pop (aka K-pop) song “Gangnam Style” by Psy. The video of the song features the singer using what has become a wildly popular dance step mimicking the riding of a horse, which has fascinated celebrities and music lovers in the entertainment meccas of the largely Anglophone west (as this clip from the talk-show Ellen demonstrates).
The song has raced up the music charts in English-speaking countries like the US, Australia and Canada, unseating the likes of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. It has received praise on news outlets like the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and has been recognised by Guiness World Records to be the most liked Youtube video.
Foreign language videos have on occasion been popular in the Anglosphere (think back on the Macarena in the mid-1990s). That being said, the stellar rise of “Gangnam Style” is indicative of the process by which seemingly alternative voices become can get heard in postmodernity. More specifically, it should also give one pause to reflect on the capacities, if any, of any radical cultural transformation in postmodern culture.
In Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice, Graham Ward spoke of the process of cultural transformation beginning from what might be called a “standpoint”, a concrete and material cultural site which emanates outwards to other sites. The challenge arises, Ward suggests, when the standpoint encounters what he calls “sites of power”. These are institutions and stories that embody the dominant culture of the status quo. In order for the alternative standpoint to engage and potentially transform the status quo, it is necessary for the standpoint to gain access to and speak in terms set by “sites of power”, so as to be able to make traction with those residing within these sites.
“Gangnam Style” is interesting precisely because it is a case study of how its impact is dependent on its access to such sites of power. While we may be tempted to attribute the popularity of this K-pop song to its unusual nature, it is interesting just how many reference points to the culture of the Anglosphere there are. Take for instance, the fact that the title for this Korean language song is in English and not Korean (a growing trend among other major Korean artists like BIGBANG, Hyuna and Super Junior). It is also significant that the popularity of “Gangnam Style” came after intense coverage by dozens of major Anglosphere (mainly American) news and entertainment outlets like Ellen. In terms of content, it is significant that the song uses a Euro-dance format and has a refrain that begins with the English cliche “hey sexy lady”. Rather than rely on its own aboriginal resources, K-pop is heavily reliant on tropes and artifacts of the Anglosphere in order to showcase its seemingly unique qualities. This raises the issue of whether foreign language cultural artifacts like “Gangnam Style” are true alternatives to the mainstream, or only facile variations – ultimately and extensions of it.
“Gangnam Style should be of interest for cultural analysts and theologians of culture because it demonstrates how any challenge to the cultural status quo in postmodernity require a more subtle approach than a simplistic retreat to a hermetically sealed ghetto. However, it also demonstrates the vulnerability of any project of cultural transformation in postmodernity. The very access of any standpoint to the sites of power under the conditions of consumer Capitalism, whilst it may enhance its reach and projective power, generates the risk of the standpoint being subjugated by the status quo, so that the status quo can actually be enhanced rather than undermined by any challenge. This is the risk idenitified by Herbert Marcuse in his One Dimensional Man, where he lamented how voices of opposition to the system (dominated by the consumer market) have merely become co-opted by the system. As a demonstration of this, note the irony of this blog’s analysing the phenomenon of Korean Pop by reference to links and videos, which may very well end up promoting that which is is being critiqued.
This analysis is significant to the Church precisely because salvation is just as much a cultural as it is a “spiritual” project. As the City of God moving through history, it cannot do anything but project the word of the Gospel into a Christian standpoint and culture. Because of this, a true dissemination of the Gospel to the ends of the earth will also face the same need to access the sites of power identified by Ward. This very fact also exposes the vulnerability of the Gospel in postmodernity. As the Gospel can dispel postmodernity’s idols of prosperity, self-fulfilment and material security, history is also replete with examples where the status quo can co-opt and bastardise the Gospel, commodifying it to become buttresses for these very idols.

Part of the task of discipleship then is not so much spreading the Gospel by all means possible, but also a vigilance that it does not become so “conformed to the patterns of this world” (in the words of Romans 12:2) as to proclaim the idols of this world, rather than God who rules this world.


2 thoughts on “"Gangnam Style" & Evangelisation

  1. Wow! I love your analysis of this phenomenon, Matthew. And I had a good time watching the two video clips. Where I live I have been acquainted with the way that Native American, especially Native Mexican cultures both shaped and have been shaped by Western Christianity. Easiest to see is the way that existing Mayan and Aztec religious categories shaped and have been shaped by pre-reformation Catholicism. Sometimes this occurs subtly, as in the appropriate of Catholic saints to represent the already existing native american pantheon of deities. Sometimes it manifested through violent reforms, as in the Zapatista uprising. It also put me in mind of certain African voices advocating contextualization of the Gospel and the concomitant rejection of colonialist religion. I wonder, though, if my points of reference or not somehow a bit dated (I'm getting old), though they may give some clues as to the ways in which cultural mixing and clashing will ultimately shape whatever will be post-postmodern, both in popular culture and in Christian culture. A second question has to do with whether or not this mestizaje (blending) is what the Jesus had in mind from the beginning, in encouraging the embrace of Gentiles, Syro-Phoenicians, Samaritans, Romans, etc. If we could accept that thought, it might make us a bit less uptight about maintaining the so-called purity of the the gospel. Last, here is another example, I think of the encounter of the ancient and traditional with the modern- a Mongolian punk band turned traditional music group, Hanggai. I picked it because the traditional rhythms mimic the galloping of a horse.


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