A viral video, propaganda style

A viral video, propaganda style


Ordinarily, a star turn on The Ellen DeGeneres Show teaching Britney Spears his dance might be one of the surest signs that a performer has made it.

But this week, Park Jae-sang, the South Korean phenomenon behind a dance video called Gangnam Style, got an even clearer sign of success. North Korea, so cut off from the world that satellite shots show most of the country plunged in darkness at night, parodied the video.

The North used the video to score a propaganda point, making fun of a South Korean presidential candidate. But one thing was still clear: While ordinary North Koreans are unlikely to have seen the video (access to the Internet is severely limited), Gangnam Style is a big enough hit that even reclusive apparatchiks know of it.

Why the original video, released in July, has gone viral is anyone’s guess. In it, Park, a boyish 34-year-old, does a “horse riding” dance that looks vaguely like what children do when they hop around pretending to be galloping. He raps and dances around Seoul, all in the company of pretty women and to a song with an infectious beat.

In short, the performer, popularly known as PSY (short for Psycho), has done what Korean pop bands have failed to do. While those groups have choreographed their way to success all over Asia, they have made less headway in other parts of the world. Park, with his willingness to allow himself to be made fun of with a buffoonish performance, is a global success.

His video has more than 220 million views on YouTube, and several parodies themselves have gone viral. A recent spoof landed some lifeguards in California in trouble: News reports say they were fired for using city property as their set.

South Korea’s “Macarena” moment does have a bit of a serious side. What Park is singing about is Gangnam, a fashionable neighbourhood in Seoul where the nouveau riche shop at Chanel, drive fancy cars and send their children to well-known prep schools.

He grew up there, and although his dance moves are anything but what someone might expect of Gangnam’s sophisticates, the title seems to both celebrate — and possibly mock — the lifestyle.

That plays especially well in South Korea, where the growing gap between rich and poor is serious enough to have become an issue in the presidential campaign.

In any case, South Koreans have banded together to celebrate Park’s success, with media outlets breathlessly reporting each new sighting. PSY on Ellen. PSY on Saturday Night Live. And now a PSY parody in North Korea.

It does not seem to matter at all to many South Koreans that possibly their most famous cultural ambassador is, well, less than refined. For them, he still represents a “soft power” moment, a way of selling their culture to the world.

Dafna Zur, a professor at the department of East Asian languages and cultures at Stanford University, says South Koreans still have “an inferiority complex” that makes them happy for exposure.

“I think Koreans are still at the stage where they think any publicity is good publicity,” she said.

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