Gangnam Style is not a protest song. If anything, the 2012 hit, by Korean rapper Psy, is a celebration of meaninglessness, a musically repurposed novelty phrase, in a non-English language, cleverly paired with pedestrian, early ‘90s rave arragements. Imagine Americans’ shock when its author, about to perform at the White House, was outed for inciting against the US military, back in 2004.
“Kill those f—ing Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives,” a citizen journalist, writing for CNN’s iReport, first quoted Psy as saying. “Kill them all slowly and painfully.”
Sung at a 2004 protest concert against the US occupation of Iraq, the lyrics are purported to reflect Korean identification with Iraq, as a country playing unwilling ‘host’ to the US military.
Though the original lyrics, as the Washington Post’s Max Fisher, argued, were less pointed, Americans found still themselves outraged. How could a Korean pop singer, as big as Psy, turn out to be so violently inclined towards Americans? Egged on by rightwing media, the US reaction bordered on the hysterical, as though some kind of covenant had been broken. Between what, it’s unclear – dance music and Americans? Koreans and Americans?
I’ll wager a reasonable guess: Psy’s lyrics became controversial in the US, because of unresolved American guilt feelings over the Iraq War. In espousing such outrage towards us, it felt as though a foreigner, from a country that Americans feel little conflict about having similarly ‘rescued’ was calling their bluff in the Persian Gulf, where America remains ready to go to war again, in this case, against Iran. In this instance, the bluff is about the Iraq War, as well as similar wars that had preceded it. Psy had punctured a collective amnesia that had set in as a consequence of Americans’ powerlessness to halt their country’s occupation of Iraq.
Following the widely-acclaimed Iraq troop surge spearheaded by General David Petraeus (despite its successes being debatable) Americans have forgotten, conveniently or not, the realities of how the world felt at the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Massive protests throughout the United States were accompanied by foreign governments, including NATO members, publicly criticizing the US war effort. Demonstrations were held all over the world against the Bush Administration’s actions. Before the war even began, many rightfully saw its justifications regarding weapons of mass destruction as nonsense, and read the neoconservative push for democracy as a farce to ensure the private acquisition of Iraq’s oil resources.
Naturally, this sentiment was also seen in South Korea, which at the time of Psy’s performance, was still reeling from an incident in which two U.S. soldiers ran over Korean schoolgirls with an armored vehicle. The paternalism that defined American actions in Iraq struck a particular chord amongst Koreans, as permanent US military bases in the country continue to cause deep resentment in many areas of South Korean society. The eventual acquittal of the two soldiers was a familiar story to many South Koreans, who are raised with the knowledge that 37, 000 American soldiers stationed in the country are not privy to the same justice system as Korean citizens. These events became mixed with protests against the 2004 beheading of Korean missionaries in Iraq, which quickly escalated to large-scale disobedience against the US military more broadly.
Rather than be shocked, we should applaud South Korean musicians for painting this distress into their lyrics. The role of political art in a given society has always been to give voice to specific attitudes, and certainly lyrics such as “Kill those fucking Yankees” are a raw articulation of a very real political attitude. The inability of sovereign states to try armed Americans who act in roguish or irresponsible ways causes massive bitterness in the countries that play host to US military bases. Indeed, these lyrics would have been popular in Iraq later when a mercenary soldier went on widely-known rampages.
The question therefore is about the automatic defensiveness Americans felt regarding Psy’s lyrics. Curiously, even those who knew about the circumstances surrounding his 2004 performance were seen apologizing for it, issuing statements such as, “it was just an accident.” Much of this is related to an anxiety that many Americans are forced to live with, as a significant minority espouse liberal-left political opinions, and yet feel eternally powerless to influence Washington’s foreign policies.
“Kill those fucking Yankees” is an inconvenient reminder that America is a declining superpower, with a sizable percentage of the world’s citizenry ambivalent about its conduct. Understanding why an artist like Psy espoused such feelings means coming to terms with the resentment American military deployments continue to cultivate, even amongst allies like South Korea. If an innocuous pop singer from Seoul can give voice to such anger, imagine what Afghans and Iraqis will be saying, decades from now. Their resentment will bear little resemblance to what Psy has to say.
As long as Americans refuse to come to terms with the legacy of its military operations abroad, criticism, even from unthreatening pop musicians like Psy, will always be a surprise. It’s time we came acknowledged our destructive foreign policies. Time is of the essence, as in all likelihood, such criticism will be far less musical, in its delivery.
Photograph courtesy of KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea. Published under a Creative Commons license.