It’s a good time to be PSY. The Korean rapper has become an international celebrity with the unexpected success of Gangnam Style, the absurdly catchy song that’s introduced much of the world to K-Pop, while simultaneously critiquing and subverting the genre. The star recently met with UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who politely relinquished his status as the world’s most famous South Korean, and suggested that PSY was so cool, he might singlehandedly be able to help mitigate global warming. In perhaps the most astounding development, Gangnam Style has surfaced in North Korea, remixed into a parody making fun of a South Korean political candidate, a development that calls into question some commonly-held assumptions about North Korea’s insulation from global media dialogs.
As Max Fisher points out, the success of Gangnam Style has everything to do with PSY’s colorful and energetic video, and less to do with the tune itself. The lyrics are incomprehensible to most of the song’s fans (and require significant contextualization for those who understand Korean), but it’s got a memorable hook, an amusing dance and an easily parodied video. Earlier songs that meet these criteria – “Dragonstea Din Tea” by Moldovan band O-Zone comes to mind – have spread by becoming internet memes. Like a cute cat photo that begs for a satirical caption, the Gangnam Style video is made for remix. It’s clear that PSY is poking fun at his own unhipness, which gives permission to anyone parodying the video to make fools of themselves. And it’s not hard to parallel the (lightweight) narrative of PSY’s video by mimicking a few dance moves and paralleling the locations PSY chose for his antics: a beach, a stable, a parking garage, an elevator.
And so we’ve seen goofy remakes of the video from the US Naval Academy and from Filipino prisoners, to full remixes, celebrating subcultures as diverse as Star Trek fans (you MUST turn on subtitles to fully appreciate Gangnam Klingon Style), to Minecraft players.
And now, a version from Ai Wei Wei.
The dissident Chinese artist’s version of Gangnam style combines clips from the PSY video – though only clips where PSY is not present – with scenes of a raucous dance party in the courtyard of Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio. Like PSY, Ai Wei Wei is dressed in bright colors, a pink shirt complementing a black suit, and like the rapper, he’s an energetic and goofy dancer. As Gangnam Style parodies go, it’s not an especially compelling version – it gets repetitive very quickly, with the same group performing the same few dance moves in scene after scene.
Is this the embattled artist blowing off a little steam? Having some fun on a sunny afternoon? Ai Wei Wei’s sense of humor is one of the great halmarks of his work, but it’s unwise to dismiss anything he does as purely humorous. As James Panero observed in an article in The New Criterion, Ai Wei Wei is intensely aware of popular culture and, in the past, has taken inspiration from the New York City punk rock scene. Perhaps PSY’s subversive rethinking of K-Pop has inspired a subversive response?
There are two clear signs that Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style is meant to challenge Chinese authorities. About a minute into the video, Ai Wei Wei pulls out a pair of handcuffs and spins them, which is hard not to read this as a comment on the Chinese government’s tendency to arrest and detain the artist for any number of arbitrary reasons. And his version is titled “Grass Mud Horse Style”, a reference to Chinese censorship that’s immediately understandable to viewers in the know. “Grass mud horse” – “cao ni ma” – is a homonym for a rude and graphic Chinese insult, one of the many terms censored on the Chinese internet. Chinese netizens subvert automated censorship, using homonyms, and “cao ni ma” was introduced into the lexicon by an activist who created a viral video where children sang a rousing song about the victory of the grass mud horse over the evil “river crab”, another homonym animal that symbolizes the Chinese censors. But if the video is a commentary on Chinese censorship, why is it so… lame?
My friend Molly Sauter solved the mystery for me this morning, observing that this is the first Gangnam style remix that reads as sad, not joyful. Ai Wei Wei and friends dance frenetically, but they never leave his walled garden, while in PSY’s original, and most of the parodies, a wide range of backdrops frame the dancing. PSY’s tour of the Gangnam neighborhood is an idiosynratic one, focused more on parking garages than lavish megamalls, but it’s a tour of the physical world. Ai Wei Wei is confined in his garden, dancing defiantly, but he’s dancing grass mud horse style, constrained by censorship.
An Xiao Mina, who coordinates translation of Ai Wei Wei’s twitter feed into English, is an astute scholar of Chinese internet memes. Reacting to my observation that platforms used mostly for playful speech (cute cats) are powerful tools for activists, she’s postulated that memes are the dominant form of political expression on the Chinese internet. In a talk at ROFLCon at MIT, she offered a tour of politically subversive memes: Ai Wei Wei and friends posing nude as a commentary on his arrest on trumped up pornography charges, pictures of sunflower seeds standing in for Ai Wei Wei in reference to his famous Tate Modern exhibition, people posing in sunglasses to evoke blind activist Chen Guancheng. Because the memes are images, not text, they’re difficult for authorities to censor, as well as being great fun to make. Given the emergence of Gangnam Style as this year’s remixable meme, how could Ai Wei Wei sit on the sidelines?
Not everyone is a fan. Anthony Tao observes that Ai Wei Wei’s video is posted on YouTube, which is blocked in China, rather than on a domestic service like Youku. As such, it’s less of a middle finger to the Chinese government, Tao argues, than the artist “refilling his cache of cool with the Western World.”
Subversive defiance, or an attempt to stay relevant? Or just some harmless fun? As Freud once said, sometimes a grown man doing a horsie dance is just a grown man doing a horsie dance.