Two Military Performances of ‘Gangnam Style’ in Afghanistan: What A Joke!

So far, I haven’t looked at the military occupation in Afghanistan. What the military forces do there have not appealed to me, personally and professionally. In part, I am “fighting” against the academic urge to research and write about it because I have very little optimism about the military situation there. Counter-insurgency strategies, policies, and other literatures around post-conflict zones have been documented, but it is not the place, nor is it my intention, to summarise them here. I’d prefer to look at cultural practices in conflict zones. Although not primarily in line with my PhD research on Afghan theatre practices, I thought I’d add my reflections on two videos I came across coincidentally. They were done by military personnel based in Afghanistan, performing a parody of the Gangnam Style.

A fad considered dated by now, the ‘Gangnam Style’ (released in July 2012)  is a Korean pop single performed by Park Jae-sang, favourably known as PSY. It is a very catchy tune done to a rather amusing horse-riding choreography. The Gangnam Style was an instant sensation over social media and everyone seemed to ride on the K-pop wave and, literally, imitated PSY’s fun moves. President Barack Obama had been reported to dance it privately (see link). Ellen Degeneres did it with Britney Spears, together with PSY, on The Ellen Show (see video link). Hugh Jackman taught Jay Leno the sexy moves on the latter’s talkshow (see video link). Even Madonna shared the stage with PSY, did the entire sequence, and crawled under his groin (see video link). According to The Asian Age polls in the UK, Gangnam Style topped the video charts and beat Michael Jackson‘s Thriller (see link).

Some social commentators have dug deep into the subtleties of Gangnam Style, locating it within the Korean context and identifying it as a satire on excessive materialism in Gangnam, a densely-populated district in Seoul. Here are a few reviews:

But where the social commentary really shines through is in the satirical depictions of the “Gangnam guy,” who dresses in a funny suit but never smiles, gawks at women in an outdoor yoga class, and hangs out in a sauna with tattooed gangsters (while wearing oversized sunglasses). As he attempts to dance his way down garbage-strewn streets with gorgeous women or observes old men playing baduk (a traditional Korean boardgame), he’s always dressed well, taking himself a little too seriously. He’s making a mockery of the cold, chiseled look that is typically associated with Gangnam guys, from magazine models to mainstream K-Pop artists. This satirical depiction of wealthy young men is universally humorous, the same way Austin Powers and Mr. Bean straddle language barriers and cultural confines. (by Julia Bass in Policy Mic; see link.)

PSY’s Gangnam Style song and video is not about sexy ladies and riding horses, which everyone seems to think. Instead, it is a satire about the lifestyle of those who are trying to live a “Gangnam Style” of excess materialism. It pokes fun at so many who are chasing rainbows and dreaming of becoming a Gangnam resident someday, much like those wanting to live the Hollywood lifestyle. Just listen to the words (Korean or English) and you will see how PSY is being sarcastic about the whole notion of “Gangnam Style” being real and tangible, like Hans Christian Andersen’s “Emperor’s New Clothes.” (in Examiner.Com, see link.)

Psy hits all the symbols of Gangnam opulence, but each turns out to be something much more modest, as if suggesting that Gangnam-style wealth is not as fabulous as it might seem. We think he’s at a beach in the opening shot, but it turns out to be a sandy playground. He visits a sauna not with big-shot businessmen but with mobsters, Kim points out, and dances not in a nightclub but on a bus of middle-aged tourists. He meets his love interest in the subway. Kim thinks that Psy’s strut though a parking garage, two models at his side as trash and snow fly at them, is meant as a nod to the common rap-video trope of the star walking down a red carpet covered in confetti. “I think he’s pointing out the ridiculousness of the materialism,” Hong said. (by Max Fisher in The Atlantic; see link.)

So when I found these two videos done separately by American and British soldiers, I amused myself with questions around (i) production contexts, and (ii) audience reception, which I attempt to expound a little in the next few paragraphs. For now, here are the   questions that first prompted my ‘investigations’: If the original Gangnam Style is a satire of South Korean culture, and these two videos are parodies of the original, what can we infer of these newer versions? As audiences from a digital age, how should we then perceive and receive these performances? Finally, what relevance does this have for Afghans, if any at all?

To contextualise the “actors” or “dancers” in the video, here is the background information.

(i) Production Contexts

American Navy Video:

The first video is done by American soldiers from the US Navy and Marines Shock Trauma platoon. This Medical Unit is based in Helmand, Afghanistan. From an article by McClatchy Newspapers, the situation in Helmand has stabilised so much that it has become bored for the American soldiers. This is because the Afghans soldiers are in the frontline of battle instead.

Here is an excerpt:

Having trained to fight and fight aggressively, many of the younger Marines on their first tour of duty are bored.

“I don’t think the word is exactly ‘useless,’ but there’s not much more we can do here,” said Lance Cpl. Christian Cappucci, 20, of Townsend, Mass. “It’s unfortunate that there’s no combat. I wish I had seen it earlier.”

His unit is tasked with security for Dwyer, which means he at least gets to go outside the base for patrols. They stick so close, though, there’s not much chance of action. Basically they just patrol the desert just outside the base, partnering with Afghan soldiers who stop passing cars on the two desert routes around the base.

Over near the Helmand River, a few kilometers away, there’s a tree line, and every time Cappucci sees it, he gets a feeling that the Taliban could be found there in the cover. But it’s out of bounds.

He eyes that tree line and wishes.

“It’s aggravating, because it’s right there, and you can almost reach out and touch it, but we can’t go there,” he said. (see source here)

This overwhelming sense of boredom is something I could identify with when I lived in Kabul for five months. I was busy on weekdays, but come weekends when I was stuck in my guesthouse, time halted. It became worse when the internet or the electricity was down. There was nothing else to do but to wither and fade into a deep non-existential non-entity. A painful non-existence, I’d say. Geographically, I was not confined but chose to stay indoors, unless a local friend accompanied me on outings. In contrast, the American soldiers were probably dying from boredom — and if they did nothing to salvage the situation, they would disappear into the same abyss of nothingness. In a way, creative endeavours such as this gave them an artistic goal and a kinesthetic respite from their  mundane routines.
Next up, the British.

British Army Video:

The second video is made by the 21 Engineer Regiment of the British Army. With the main HQ situated in North Yorkshire, the 21 Engineer Regiment consists of the following squadrons: 7 Headquarters and Support Squadron; 1 Armoured Engineer Squadron; 4 Armoured Engineer Squadron; 73 Armoured Engineer Squadron; and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Light Aid Detachment (see source). One reason they gave for doing this video, according to The Mirror News, was to “lift their spirits while serving in Afghanistan” (see link). According to the Huffington Post, they did this spoof to “raise funds for the Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team in North Yorkshire” (see link). Herein lies the supposed contradictions. Which exactly is the truth? Can both be truths in equal parts? Why did the soldiers give different accounts to various news media then?

Anyhow, the motivations behind both videos are starkly different. But one commonality is the setting: Afghanistan as the backdrop. In fact, I don’t think it remains in the background, but is easily and frequently foregrounded by the media as a “conflict zone”. As there are complex reasons accounting for military presence in Afghanistan, the individuals (at least the willing parties shown in the video) have engaged in something beautiful.

In Performance in Place of War, James Thompson, Jenny Hughes, and Michael Balfour argue that people in conflict zones “exhibit the desire to create and protect an alternative material reality, however fragile and precarious, in conditions that threaten development and survival” (p.28). Even though they write about survivors of war, it can be equally true of these soldiers fighting for their own sanity too.

Next, I shall briefly attempt to look at these videos as if they were stand-alone (digital) performances, and how I would evaluate them on some of my own performance values.

(ii) Audience Reception

Subjectively, I preferred the American version more. More of them exhibited the willingness to learn the gangnam movements and collectively danced to the rhythm than did the British.

But I liked the British soldiers taking effort into costume choices. Remember the banana outfit — at least an inflated costume that I think was a beige banana of sorts [1:08] (but was claimed to be a turkey in The Mirror News) — followed by some animal outfits [2:48 and 3:29]? That was rather amusing. They also had a pink helmet [0:52], a pink t-shirt [0:29], a red stole/scarf [0:08], a white long-sleeved shirt with a black bow-tie [0:31], a golden spacesuit [1:33], a yellow flourescent vest [1:44], a red Christmas hat [1:08], a full Santa outfit [1:53] and some unidentifiable outfits, one of which resembles Spiderman [2:50]! It makes one wonder what they take with them to these camps, and how such wardrobe choices were made when they flew to Afghanistan!

On the contrary, the American version had little wardrobe choices, except for the display of a wig at [1:55, 2:23, 2.36, 3:14], etc of their clip. In the same scene, there were two pairs of Crocs in blue, and one in pink. Interestingly, the pair of sunglasses was rather retro-looking [0:18].

In the use of props, the British soldiers had a swan [1:29] and creatively made use of chainsaws [0:16]. In contrast, the Americans had nothing to boast of.

Costumes and props don’t necessarily become the criteria for my liking a piece of digital production, but they can affect my aesthetic judgement. In this case, they appear to be inconsequential.

Both videos have used fascinating locations and sets, particularly the swimming pool done in the British version. But like some productions that try too hard to entertain, the British video fails to cause me to laugh out loud. As a parody, it lost its humour. In contrast, the American version has confetti thrown at three soldiers while they kicked dust off the ground [1:09], the soldiers did a walk backwards [1:26], one soldier being carted off [2:19], a directed embrace towards the camera, thereby drawing the audience in [2:30], the opening and closing of toilet doors [3:15], and the surprising shot of a man in singlet sitting in the toilet in his underwear, nodding without a morsel of embarrassment [3:26]. Without their direct interference or influence, the skies in the American video looked bluer. They shouldn’t be credited for something beyond their control, but from the view of a “movie audience”, colours do affect perceptions and moods. In this case, they provided a greater contrast, albeit a beautiful one, to the army browns and gravel greys.

Besides creativity and innovation in the mise-en-scene, I am particularly biased towards believability. Are the characters “believable”? The American soldiers have taken more effort, both in reality and in post-production edits, to lip-synch with the lyrics of the song, while the British soldiers had mouths opening and closing like goldfish. The British scene at [0:19] is hilarious for its own sake, but because there is a disconnect from the performing body (his lips, per se) and the receiving body (my ears and eyes, per se), it was not, in my opinion, a directorial choice. In fact, here is an example of ‘disembodied disengagement’ for me.

The next reason is their failure to lip-synch at all. It is understandable if the British soldiers cannot lip-synch accurately because the song is in Korean, but the effort to not lip-synch is obvious. In live stage performances, lip-synching is common in drag shows. When done right, lip-synching evokes emotions. When done intentionally to fail, lip-synching jolts one out of one’s imagined reality. It is a political check, a disruption to the ‘status quo’. In an oblique reference to lip-synching, one article states:

One focus group participant described the way that such songs facilitated not only sexualized interaction but also sexual arousal. A fifty-year-old, self-identified heterosexual man stated: “I’m sitting there and there’s a little bit of me saying, ‘this is sexually exciting,’ and there’s another part of me saying ‘wait, you’re not supposed to be sexually excited. This is a man…’ That’s why, I think, when they were not in synch with the music, as they were in a couple of cases, we were taken aback a bit.” This audience member clearly describes the way that music creates a sexualized script that draws in members of the audience. When drag performers are in synch with the music, audience members follow the script and feel sexually excited by the performance. However, when the performers are out of synch with the music, the script is broken and audience members feel self-conscious about their sexual arousal. Still, it is clear that the performer-audience interaction causes some to question preconceived sexual identities. (p.66, “We’re Not Just Lip-Synching Up Here: Music and Collective Identity In Drag Performances” by Elizabeth Kaminski and Verta Taylor, in ‘Identity Work in Social Movements’, edited by Jo Reger, Daniel J. Myers, and Rachel L. Einwohner)

In other words, neither was it a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt effect (or V-effect). It is jarring, without the possibility of me becoming more (politically) aware. For me, it is tantamount to them being lazy and not learning the song well enough. It is akin to a feeble singer shoddily lip-synching on stage while the recorded music plays on; it feels “artificial”, a robbing of an authentic aesthetic experience for me, the audience. This, of course, then brings up issues around liveness, presence, mediatisation and aesthetic values within the field of Performance Studies.

Furthermore, there is a substantially more significant number of Americans, both individually and collectively, showing more synchronicity with the moves, for example [1:19, 1:31, 1:35, 1:45, 1:51, 2:47, 2:59, 3:05, 3:31] than that shown by the British counterparts. From the standpoint of social organising and mobilising, the Americans have my vote. Moreover, their camera angles, perspectives, and post-production effects were more aesthetically pleasing.

To watch the original Gangnam Style MTV by Psy, click below:

Earlier, I had raised the question on the function of these two videos. If these were parodies of the original video satirising a socioeconomic situation (of Gangnam in South Korea), then what is the inferred meaning for Afghanistan? Can double negatives become positive? What exactly is a parody? What is a satire?

Chris Baldick, in the authoritative The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, defines these two terms as such:

(a) Parody:

a mocking imitation of the *STYLE of a literary work or works, ridiculing the stylistic habits of an author or school by exaggerated mimicry. Parody is related to * BURLESQUE in its application of serious styles to ridiculous subjects, to *SATIRE in its punishment of eccentricities, and even to *CRITICISM in its analysis of style. (p.185)

(b) Satire

a mode of writing that exposes the failings of individuals, institutions, or societies to ridicule and scorn. Satire is often an incidental element in literary works that may not be wholly satirical, especially in *COMEDY. Its tone may vary from tolerant amusement, as in the verse satires of the Roman poet Horace, to bitter indignation, as in the verse of Juvenal and the prose of Jonathan Swift (see Juvenalian). (p.228)

Quite ironically, I prefer the clarity provided by Cliffs Notes:

A parody is a composition that imitates the style of another composition, normally for comic effect and often by applying that style to an outlandish or inappropriate subject. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a perfect example of parody. Grahame-Smith took Jane Austen’s text and introduced zombies into the storyline. Throughout the reworked novel, he maintained Austen’s writing style, voice, and even much of the original storyline, creating a new work that is recognizable as being Jane Austen’s but that definitely isn’t.
A satire, on the other hand, is intended to do more than just entertain; it tries to improve humanity and its institutions. A satire is a literary work that tries to arouse the reader’s disapproval of an object — a vice, an abuse, a faulty belief — by holding it up to ridicule. Satirists use euphemism, irony, exaggeration, and understatement to show, with a greater or lesser degree of levity, the follies of mankind and the paradoxes and idiocy that they can lead to.  (see source)

I don’t notice any obvious inappropriateness of the two parodies. No new zombies, for instance, as Cliffs Notes had illustrated above. No new outlandish topics or subjects raised, except the fact that it is rather strange — unexpected, really — to see gung-ho military personnel dancing. But given the boredom as explained earlier, it is quite expected to see soldiers entertaining themselves through song and dance. In the same way, this juxtaposition of two contradicting expectations was examined in an earlier blog where I described how the Afghan football champions of the South Asian Cup did an attan dance immediately after their victory (see blog). The dances subvert the perceived notion of masculinities and aggressive hostilities associated with strict regimented systems of the army and the football pitch.

Look, I do not want to trivialise these videos. They were important to the soldiers based on the contexts in which they operated. While one may argue that military interventions in Afghanistan was a joke to begin with, my subtitle “What A Joke” is not meant to denigrate these men on the ground, nor the entertaining videos they had produced. In fact, I take it as a metaphor in line with the parodying and satirising that I had discussed, and revert the question to Afghans whom I have found to be very critical of their own government: What is your joke?

In a more recent video published in the Jewish Journal dated 29 August 2013, it was reported that there were at least two “armed and suited Israeli soldiers dancing to “Gangnam Style” at a crowded Palestinian nightclub. Locals look on in delight, taping the unlikely spectacle on their smartphones, hoisting the soldiers into the air and grabbing onto their hands for joint fist-pumps” (see link). Even though the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) frowned upon this and are investigating and interrogating the soldiers’ inappropriate behaviours, the writer, Simone Wilson, claims that the video is “a refreshingly joyous and lighthearted picture of co-existence in the West Bank — a reminder that as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks falter and a war cloud looms on the Syrian horizon, Jews and Palestinians can at least be united in their urge to take a load off”, and that “all we needed was a little party up in this peace process” (see link). In this example, it is evident that the arts can unite men at war, soldiers and civilians alike, that (political) foes are (socially) friends. A dance can break down those barriers.

Citing Thompson et al again, they remind us on the power of the arts in conflict zones:

Theatre and the arts here are understood to be essential life-preserving activities that express a profound resistance to the wider context of threat, destruction, senselessness, chaos and loss within which people exist.

The impulse to make something beautiful may appear to be a distraction here: an escape into a safe imagined world. However, these practices show that the binary between engaged political theatre and escapist aesthetics or the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ do not hold up in a place of conflict. […] The aesthetic project is a political project: a demand for creativity and imagination becomes at the same time a statement of resistance to war. (p.28)

It is humanising for the American and British soldiers to engage in these videos. One might wonder if these (creative) (non-)military interventions — if they could be termed that way — have coincidentally touched on a raw nerve indigenous to the Afghan literary culture. It was reported by Jalal Noorani in Satire and Parody in Contemporary Literature of Afghanistan that:

In Afghanistan, Mahmud Tarzi was perhaps the first contemporary writer and journalist who produced and introduced satirical works. Later on, Haj Ismail Harati and Shayaq Jamal, defying the censors, further popularized satirical poetry. In more recent periods, a number of poets, including Talib Qandihari, Nasir Nasib, and Shirali Qanun, valiantly tried to echo the hardships of Afghanis’ daily life and the anomalies of their social interactions in their satiric works. However, due to suffocating and ever present censorship, their satiric works only aimed at no more than price gouging, superstition, and low level bureaucratic corruption.

(in Iran Nameh Volume XXII; see source)

Could these gangnam videos be added to the repository of satiric publications within Afghan literatures? That, perhaps, the Gangnam Style performed by two powerful military forces is not really a joke (as one laughing it off as another nonsensical activity), but a provocative needling or goading of Afghan politics in the same way Psy poked fun of his own culture? Maybe, just maybe, the foolery intended by the makers of the video really has an impact in declaring an alternative worldview in subtly prodding Afghans into more creative action.

The questions I would raise, then, to my Afghan friends are: Can anyone, singly or collectively, rise up to take the challenge, especially in the coming elections of 2014? How well will you (be able to) perform your resistance towards war, towards corruption, towards poverty, towards gender inequality, towards drug production, and towards forced marriages of children? These are the fertile conditions for social and political change, the fodder for your joking and satirising, and for your creative imaginations to take root. Will you join us in the Gangnam Style?