Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gangnam Style is More Than a Horse Dance

‘GANGNAM STYLE’ HAS BEEN all the rage for quite some time now and deservedly so. It's got a great beat, a Korean singer whose nickname is short for psycho, and a ridiculous dance. It shows you how far our society has evolved since the Macarena that we all clumsily danced to some 17 years ago. But in the area where the song truly excels, it has fallen on deaf ears.

“Gangnam style” is a satire not only about this ritzy neighborhood in Korea that according to PSY is very fancy and professional during the day, but has crazy parties at night, but about every neighborhood and community in which people are wholly enveloped in the pursuit of wealth. PSY reminds us all that life is meaningless when our thoughts, aspirations, and actions are centered on money. The song also laments the fact that even when we are fortunate enough to attain financial stability and flexibility, all too often, we do not know what to do with our wealth and end up spending it frivolously, without thinking or prioritizing. The music video does a great job of capturing the emptiness of it all, along with the other quirkiness and craziness. (For a great explanation of the song, check out the blog, ‘My Dear Korea.’) Apparently, Korean's spend more money on a latte at Starbucks than on a meal. Yikes.

PSY has attracted upwards of 80,000 fans to his concerts and hundreds of millions of viewers of his YouTube video who scream the lyrics of Gangnam Style on the rooftops while doing the horse dance. I wonder, however, how many of his fans have internalized the song’s message that we need to unify around values of justice, peace, cooperation, and the pursuit of other noble causes. When our lives revolve around money, the world devolves into one that is completely self-centered, arrogant, petty, disingenuous, and fractured.


Don't take my word for it or PSY’s for that matter; King Solomon said it better than we ever could, especially because he amassed more wealth than we will ever earn. In the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, he recalls all that he has acquired. “I acted in grand style: (maybe he was the biblical version of Gangnam style, dancing the epic dance of his time.....the Hora.) I built myself houses, I planted vineyards...I amassed silver and gold for myself....thus I grew and surpassed any of my predecessors in Jerusalem....then I looked at all the things that I had done and the energy I had expended in doing them; it was clear that it was all futile.”

All the money in the world didn’t satisfy King Solomon. Spending it lavishly didn’t evoke feelings of accomplishment and achievement. The Jewish community should take note. Our Birthday parties, Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, weddings and other celebrations have often become way too excessive and unnecessarily elaborate. Even Hollywood, home to the most frivolous of spenders, has taken note of and mocked our craziness when it released the film “Keeping up with the Stein’s” a few years back.

Here in the United States, we are still in a recession and many of our friends and neighbors are suffering economically. But regardless of our financial status, we have to ask ourselves whether our lifestyles and spending habits are consistent with Jewish values? Are they rooted in acts of charity, social justice, equality, and spirituality or are we living life predicated on the values of “Oppan Gangnam Style?” Are we ready to join PSY in the quest for meaning in life, or are we content chasing the “holy dollar?”

Please don’t misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with people earning a ‘good’ living or even amassing a fortune. Without such people, it would be impossible to support the poor and the many worthy organizations that benefit from the contributions of the generous philanthropists among us. The problem lies in the attitude of those individuals who believe that their lives are defined by their ability to make and spend money. We can do better.

As we continue to sing along with PSY, perfect the horse dance, and scream “Oppan Gangnam Style,” for a few more weeks before the craze is finally over (apparently it ended a few days ago, according to CNN), don’t forget about his challenge to us to find real meaning in life. And as Jews, let’s consider King Solomon’s final words of Ecclesiastes as our answer: “the sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.”


Rabbi Joshua Hess is an Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. He is the co-founder of the PopJewish.com blog and is on Twitter at @RabbiHess.