by Sungyak John Kim
One year ago “Gangnam Style” became the world’s most popular music video in history, hitting one billion views in a brief span of just four months. The video has been parodied and featured everywhere from a Filipino jail to the United Nations, and the horse dance became, as it were, the millennials’ moonwalk. PSY’s story and the song’s origins have been covered quite extensively, and understandably so. But over the last year we have failed to ask what the success of Gangnam Style tells us about who we are.
What very few people have noticed about the success of “Gangnam Style” is that it now presents itself to us as a valuable cultural barometer, a textual window into our world. Humanity has spent a collective 4 billion minutes (that’s about 67 million hours, or 2.7 million days, or 7,610 years) watching this music video.
As a former resident of Gangnam (yes, it’s a real place), I was surprised that my non-Korean friends, though they knew that I spoke fluent Korean, never asked me about the meaning of the song, neither did the world seem to care. No one paused to reflect on the meaning of PSY’s incredible success. The lack of questions from others led me to ask my own questions and eventually to the following observations:
The first is probably the most obvious: the absence of objective meaning in the postmodern context. This might seem like beating a dead horse, especially since Evangelicals have been beating on postmodernism like a cultural piñata for decades. But, “Gangnam Style” is a different kind of pony, a pastiche of western pop culture and materialism in Korean.
One of the most-discussed issues in music theory today is the relationship between language and music, whether one qualitatively compromises the other, or whether there is a balance to strike between text and tonality, etc. “Gangnam Style,” I believe, is a resounding conclusion to this debate, at least at the popular level. The text has yielded to tone. Meaning has been lost. Perhaps this is what people have always said about pop music – that values like meaning, coherence and virtue have long been exiled into the “old, rich people who attend operas” category. Well, “Gangnam Style” has put another nail in the coffin. No longer is meaning merely absent. In our postmodern culture, absence of meaning is celebrated.
Poets have anguished in the past over the lack of appropriate words for their subject. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 would not exist today if the bard did not struggle to communicate his subject (love) as “an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” What PSY’s success reveals, however, is not only the absence of this struggle for words in popular music, but also the absence of the subject itself. To this day, the subject of “Gangnam Style” remains a mystery to most.
But maybe that lack of meaning is precisely why the world loves it so much. The appearance of unity gives a sense of a something objective and coherent. The horse dance is only fun when you do it as a group. But while there appears to be a common context in which to enjoy the song, the context is ultimately without a “text.” It’s a celebration of a universal truth that remains unidentified. It’s as if PSY has brought the world to a church that has no scripture, a wedding with no vows.
I find Martin Luther’s insights on music to be very relevant here. Luther is better known as a theologian than as a musician. But his Forward in Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae gives us a rare look at his views on music:
I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! … The precious gift [of music] has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God.
I am drawn to Luther’s coherent description of music, particularly as a human phenomenon. This is so radically different from the “Gangnam Style” generation’s understanding of music. For Luther, music has a very clear subject – God, the Creator of music – and music is therefore always meaningful because of this reference point. Music that is aware of and confined to this referent is, according to Luther, the most “unshackled,” or, most free. This is when things like beauty and awe become much more than just a fleeting chemical reaction in the brain to being an experience of something real. The aesthetic experience is not a grand illusion as scientists have claimed, but a marker of objective truth.
But, more specifically, this musical experience (in Luther’s worldview) is reserved for human beings. This is both painfully obvious and incredibly profound. To Luther, music is an experience that only human beings created in the image of God can enjoy. No other animal on the face of the earth can enjoy music as God intended it.
Here’s Luther’s point: If we are to properly understand the nature and purpose of music, we must first understand the nature and purpose of humanity. Our musical expressions are as true and meaningful as our view of God and man. If our view of humanity finds its ultimate reference point in God, then all our musical endeavors will find their meaning and significance in God’s objectivity. But, if our view of humanity is that of a pleasure-seeking conglomerate of highly evolved cells that denies the existence of the immaterial and the ultimate reference point, then our musical expressions will be nothing more than a hedonistic gibberish.
PSY’s success proves the postmosdern context in which we live. We want unity without truth, and conformity without submission. It’s not surprising, then, that the world could be so captivated by a meaningless song that makes people hop around like animals (more specifically, horses). Being musical no longer means the same thing as being human. I don’t think there is a better summary of all this than Luther’s own words:
“A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”
Funny, yet eerily appropriate.
Sungyak John Kim is a seminary student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He also teaches at a PCA church in Orlando. You can follow him on Twitter @sungyak.