Korean pop star Psy’s video for “Gangnam Style” almost seems like a happy accident from another era – maybe 1998 – when arch dance crazes and freak chart hits were a more common experience. In a matter of weeks, “Gangnam Style” – and, of course, Psy himself – has become a very curious, very viral pop pandemic. Similar culture-permeating novelties include the Nineties pop oddities “Mambo No. 5” and “Macarena,” but the nuclear growth pattern of “Gangnam Style” outpaces them neatly at over 355 million views on Youtube to date. What’s more, the flashy aesthetics of “Gangnam Style,” both modern and part of a proudly campy pop tradition, are worth a conversation of their own.
We’re speaking, of course, about the pop dandy. At various points, everyone from David Bowie to Ne-Yo has been described as a “dandy” by the press, a loaded term referring to a dapper fellow with a penchant for the finer things in life, especially if spats and a fedora can be involved. But dandies who lack the substance to match their style risk being mocked; in recent years, it’s been a role deigned for the one-hit wonder. Tellingly, the aforementioned “Mambo No. 5” was sung by the ever-gallant Lou Bega, who never said no to a white suit and Borsalino hat; “Macarena” was performed by Los del Rio, two middle-aged men in business casual. It’s been awhile since pop has made room for the random avuncular pop hero. Right in line, “Gangnam Style” introduces us to Psy, a spry 35-year-old sporting shades, a receding hairline and a series of colorful fashion headaches. Of course, his bad taste is decidedly ironic and self-aware; “Gangnam” refers to a gaudy, nouveau-riche district of Seoul as neon and showy as Miami. Thus, the cut-rate, sky-hued penguin pimp suits in which Psy bucks, slides and lassoes through the famous choreography fit the style bill brilliantly, as do the Bermuda shorts in shades of Pepto Bismol. This is the dark side of colorblocking, and Psy clearly relishes it. And of course, the spats are out in full effect.
So, while Psy’s own attire might be a particularly garish version of retrofuturistic, his interest in exaggerating wardrobe ideals is right in line with K-pop’s ongoing examination of the hyper-real. Until “Gangnam Style,” K-pop hadn’t quite caught on in American culture but, nonetheless, Tumblr-savvy youths were familiar enough with the latest spate of “Korean Wave” performers to recognize their over-the-top aesthetics. Girl-groups like 2NE1 and Girls’ Generation appear in extremely colorful, sci-fi-saluting wares that put Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj’s ensembles to shame. K-Pop’s current heroines are busy building a futurist army on another planet – and they’re taking maximalist-loving designers like Jeremy Scott with them.
In K-pop, style is often the substance; the flashy clothes aren’t just video fodder, they’re a portal into intricate, high-maintenance fantasy worlds that North American major labels no longer sustain. Psy, as an overaged novelty outsider to both K-pop and Stateside trends, can afford to poke fun at both realms and, in turn, has become the conduit that connects them.