The Culture of Parody and Hybridity: YouTube, Religion, and Gangnam Style

0921-Gangnam-Style_full_600 On December 21st, 2012, Gangnam Style became the first YouTube video clip to acquire one billion views. Before long, the song reached the second position on the Billboard’s Hot Singles in the United States and as of May 21st 2013, the music video has reached over 1.613 billion views. Gentleman, his new song released a month ago on YouTube, gained global popularity as well. Within 26 days after its release, Gentleman had 300 million views, which Gangnam Style acquired within 76 days. This is the fastest record in YouTube history.

There is no doubt that digital media has played a crucial role in Psy’s global success. The popularity of Gangnam Style, which triggered a global success of Psy, has been disseminated from YouTube to the offline sphere including mainstream mass media, not vice versa (if we could rigidly separate between online and offline space for this post although they are closely connected). Furthermore, a great number of Gangnam Style parodies including Mitt Romney Style which reached over 40 million views, have been produced, shared, and viewed on YouTube. Thus, Gangnam Style parodies have reproduced the global popularity of Psy and Gangnam Style.

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Gangnam Style’s global popularity in part is derived from the digital culture of parody and hybridity which is being drastically disseminated by the use of new social media. It is well known that YouTube has offered a platform where Gangnam Style and its parodies can be produced, shared, and consumed on a global scale. However, it is also noteworthy that Gangnam Style music video itself is a cultural product made easy to be parodied and hybridized. Psy’s inappropriate but funny appropriation of everyday space in South Korea like restroom, bus, parking lot, elevator, and playground not only shows people how to hybridize incongruous cultural codes and thus parody one’s lifestyle and identity but makes the parody of Gangnam Style so easy. People can make their parodies of Gangnam Style just by using their own everyday space and lives. By doing so, they can show how they play with their identities and lifestyle. Thus, Gangnam can be substituted with any identity marker including locality, school, religion, political stance, and so one.

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In this regard, if YouTube is a kind of global playground that lets people all over the world create, share, and enjoy their own Gangnam Style parodies, the Gangnam Style YouTube video clip would be a sort of toy with which people can make their own cultural products. While consuming and sharing it, people learn how to make parodies, hybridize incongruous cultural codes, and play with their identities and lifestyle. Psy’s clever catchy phrase “Dress Classy Dance Cheesy” articulates such digital culture of parody and hybridity. The fun Gangnam Style arouses is the result of this inappropriate hybridization between classy dress and cheesy dance. In a sense, Gangnam Style itself is a sort of parody which twists Korean cultural codes and social norms. Thus, Gangnam Style phenomenon is not only about Psy and his YouTube video clip but also about the rise of the digital culture of parody and hybridity.

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Interestingly, religious individuals are also among those who actively engage in the global phenomenon of parodying Gangnam Style. Inri Christ, a Brazilian religious leader who claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ on Earth, gained large public interest from the Latin American population by releasing a sensational parody of Gangnam Style on YouTube. In this funny YouTube video which has acquired over 251 thousands views, you could hardly find an eagerness to assert certain religious authenticity and authority which most organized religious groups would not want to lose. Inri Christ rides a bicycle and plays bowling, which makes him look like an old buddy Christ. Yes. “Inri Christ is Cool.” His self-representation on YouTube really taps into what contemporary people want to see from traditional religious leaders but rarely see. Inri Chist is not alone in making Gangnam Style parody. Orthodox Evangelicals have also made a parody called Oppa Jesus Style for its missional purpose. Regardless of its serious evangelical messages, a Psy-like singer and his church friends mimic almost all kinds of ridiculous acts seen in Gangnam Style.

ec8aa4ed81aceba6b0ec83b7-2013-05-22-ec98a4ed9b84-11-04-25However, there are not only religious people who actively employ popular culture for their mission but also those who warn about the negative influence of Gangnam Style on their spiritual world. This is no surprise because such ambivalent approach of Judo-Christian tradition to popular culture (and media) has been repeated in history. For instance, in her Urban Faith blog, Lee Helen, an Evangelist author, worries whether there is “any downside to spending a few scant minutes of our lives watching the video, sharing it with our friends, and perpetuating the mass hysteria.” By citing Prof. de Rosset’s chapel talk in Moody Bible Institute, she highlights a possible danger of “a ‘group think’ mentality which merely follows a leaderless crowd, falling into triviality but even more the great emptiness that can haunt” Christians.

This term of “the great emptiness” is quite noteworthy because it is the crucial point where Gangnam Style threatens religious people and conservatives who are afraid of the destruction of universal meanings, identities, and thus the existing social order. In his column on Fox News The Psychological impact of ‘Gangnam Style’Dr. Keith Ablow puts Gangnam Style phenomenon as follows:

Gangnam Style may be just a ton of fun and nothing more, but I believe it’s very nothingness is what makes it so wildly, historically popular, and that its popularity says something concerning about our collective psyche:  We want diversion.  We want anesthesia.  We wish not to be known for who we really are–to be looked in the eye or called out by name on our ideas and ideals.  We want–to take the metaphor a bit far–to ride horses that don’t even exist, through landscapes filled with pretty people we know nothing about, conveyed through life by fun and an infectious beat, to nowhere special.  We want to be drugged–whether by music, or technology, or Adderall–so that we are free of those pesky things called emotion.

In terms of his characterization of Gangnam Style as “nothingness,” I want to point out that he is ignorant about the fact that Gangnam Style includes subversive satires of South Korean elite groups. However, such critique may be unnecessary because people all over the world really enjoy it regardless of Psy’s intention to satirize South Korean society. Nevertheless, his portrayal of Gangnam Style phenomenon does not offer a whole picture of it. I would argue that what makes Gangnam Style globally popular is not the nothingness as an end where all true meanings/identities become fake and dispersed, but a nothingness as an opening-up where new meanings/identities can be newly constructed. A variety of Gangnam Style parody shows us that Gangnam Style does not end up with a desperate destruction of universal identities and meanings on which people have relied. Rather, it opens up a chance for people to re-articulate, re-construct, and thus re-negotiate their identities, lifestyles, and arguments by means of digital media.

The appropriation of Gangnam Style by religious groups illustrates such reconstruction and re-articulation of religious identities/beliefs. Popular culture and digital media transform not only the content of religious beliefs/identities but also the form or way that they are expressed, practiced, and experienced. The active production, consumption, and sharing of Inri Christ and Oppa Jesus Style video clip on YouTube demonstrate how  newly religious beliefs/identities could be articulated, practiced, and experienced in digital space. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the alleged binary between secular popular culture and sacred religion is being collapsed to a considerable extent. Gangnam Style phenomenon is not just an indication that sacred religion is being contaminated by the “nothingness” and “emptiness” of postmodern popular culture. Rather it reveals that the prior notions of the secular and sacred, which have been imposed by religious/social authorities, are being crucially challenged in an age of digital media. Digital media and the culture of parody/hybridity significantly blur the ideological boundary between the secular and the sacred, even popular culture and religion.

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