Psy and Charlie Chaplin: The fine line between comedy and vulgarityThomas Beller
1. What part of the Psy video for Gangnam Style do you think is most obscene? I have an opinion, having seen the video myself recently as viewer number eight hundred million and something. I was drawn to watch it after hearing that it had become the most-watched video in the history of YouTube. I think the most obscene part is not when they zoom in on a woman’s behind in short as she bends over on all fours and then Psy issues a kind of silent scream directed at he ass. No, I think the most obscene part…
2. Every few months, my daughter finds a new song to request on repeat. “Her song” changes and evolves, which is a good thing. There was a summer, when she was three, when her song was one of nine that had been featured on a CD we made from our wedding playlist. We would play it in the car. For about two months we drove around with the windows down playing great music. And then, to quote Don MacClean, the music died. And she insisted on listening to the same songs for another three months. (The most acerbic and funny book about parenting is “Mother’s Milk,” by Edward St. Aubyn; it begins with a long riff on his child’s need to see the same movie over and over. But then it is set in an innocent time, before Netflix changed all those habits.)
3. Pop music. Pop culture. We put helmets on their heads when they ride a bike but what about their eyes and ears?
She heard Gangnam Style during a playdate dance party at our house. I had played some songs. Not chaste but not overly lewd. Then we switched out iPhones and they — our friends — introduced the drug called Psy. To Psy’s credit, not that he needs any more, my daughter was into it based on the music alone. As far as I know she has never seen the video. But her friend had. She knew all the moves. Most fundementally she had the horsey dance down pat.
It had not occurred to me, until i saw my daughter’s friend do the horsey dance and a moment later my daughter join in, that the appeal of this video might have to do with horses As Mick Jagger once said, “The little girls understand.” One thing little girls seem to understand, across the ages, is horses. An affection for them. Almost a need.
“Why do you think little girls like horses so much?” I asked the guy leading the pony around the circle the other day. It was my son on board, so it felt safe to ask.
“I have no idea,” he said. “If you figure it out let me know.”
Was the inclusion of horses — their centrality to the whole thing — some deeply calculated move? Amidst such an excess-inspired, silly video, it seems ridiculous to even ask. But I recall a layover in Seoul a year ago during which I read of a phenomenon, new to me then, of K-pop. The Korean government, feeling that K-pop could be a kind of cultural export to rival heavy industry in terms of cash, and perhaps exceed it in terms of influence, was investing heavily in the K-pop phenomona, which at the time sounded ridiculous. A year later my five-year-old attempts to sing along to Korean lyrics. I am not about to tell her they are not English words. Hearing her try and sing along is the best part of the whole thing.
4. As for obscenity and that video: I vote for the elevator scene. Where he is on his stomach, chin in hands, and above him some guy in shorts and a cowboy hat gyrates and pops his pelvis — a word that famously rhymes with Elvis. It’s not his actual gestures that I found obscene, but the expression on his face, a faux witless and beffudled expression, the door’s closing, the sinister comedian on his stomach, kind of gleeful. I don’t really like the idea of my five-year-old girl absorbing that moment.
Fortunately in this case, families are not democracies, certainly not ones with little children. So maybe she won’t ever see that video. Maybe I will be able to wall it off. And that horsey dance will just be a horsey dance. What do you think the odds are? More urgently, if you have little kids, what do you think the odds are that you will wall them off from that video? And do you even want to try? And if not is it out of a conscious decision that it is harmless physical comedy, not that unlike Charlie Chaplin, really? Or is it because one can only do so much? I really want to know.