Are 'Gangnam Style' Lyrics Worth Learning Korean For?

Shin Hyo-seop Shin Hyo-seop

The explosive popularity of rapper Psy's global hit "Gangnam Style" has led to many foreigners inquiring about the meaning of its lyrics. The host of one BBC Radio program read out the English translation, and a U.S. State Department spokesman e-mailed Korean journalists to ask about them. Just as many Koreans studied the lyrics of western pop songs to learn English, the words to "Gangnam Style" could be used to teach foreigners Korean.

But I am not too excited about explaining the meaning of the lyrics to "Gangnam Style" because I am not convinced that they are worth it.

"A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes," "A guy who one-shots his coffee before it even cools down," "A girl who looks quiet but plays when she plays," "“Now let's go until the end." These are some of the lyrics. The U.K.'s Guardian said "Gangnam Style" parodies the gap between the rich and poor in Korean society. What part of the song gave that impression?

Psy's other song "Right Now," which was touted as having the potential to become the next "Gangnam Style," is much the same. This may not be a problem for those who say Psy's main appeal is his unrefined and straight-talking style. For people who feel that the role of an artist is to serve as a vent for society's desires and discontents, the lyrics may be just what they need. But it is slightly embarrassing to imagine that many foreigners may be coming to Korean via "Gangnam Style."

The problem is not restricted to Psy. "Gee" by Girls' Generation, "I Am the Best" by 2NE1 and "Fantastic Baby" by Big Bang rank among the 10 most-viewed Korean songs on YouTube and their lyrics are also excruciatingly banal.

A common factor among timeless pop classics is that their lyrics have a surprisingly high level of emotional sophistication, class and depth. This is true in the words "I will write you a letter in the fall" from the song "Autumn Letter," as well as in "Yesterday" by the Beatles and even Katy Perry's latest song "Firework."

The lyrics to a song represent not only the artist singing it but his or her country as well. Singers convey their own emotions and views to their audience through their songs, and fans get a taste of the artist's culture through the songs. Aspiring Korean singers should do some serious thinking about what kind of image of themselves and their country that they want to show the world.

By Chosun Ilbo columnist Shin Hyo-seop

englishnews@chosun.com / Nov. 01, 2012 13:38 KST