As of Tuesday, the video of the new single by Korean pop singer Psy had been watched 89 million times. One wonders how many of these viewers were those who blogged that he could only be a one-hit wonder with Gangnam Style.
In fact, Psy has already broken a record with the new song, Gentleman. The video was watched 20 million times in the first 24 hours, beating the previous record held by Justin Bieber (eight million views in a day, for Boyfriend).
The video itself is even more puerile than its famous predecessor, and less amusing: It shows the millionaire star being rude and vaguely violent to a number of beautiful young women in skimpy outfits. He causes them to trip or fall, or rips off their bikini tops. He farts in the face of one. Toward the end of the video, one of the girls does the same kind of thing to him. It is perhaps meant to be a comeuppance.
The words, in a rapped-sung-shouted style, are in Korean, but end with the baffling English refrain, “I’m a mother-father gentleman!” Those words are somewhat slurred, so he could be saying something ruder. It’s probably a simple euphemism, like saying “jeez” for Jesus. But it’s also sarcasm, since the video shows the opposite of gentlemanly behaviour. There is a satiric streak to most of Psy’s posturing: In Gangnam Style, he was said to be mocking the posing of Seoul millionaires in the glitzy shopping district of Gangnam; here, he might be making fun of misogynistic rappers. Hard to tell.
We might look to the lyrics of the song for elucidation. An English translation of the words yields a cryptic text, something more akin to experimental poetry than song. It begins, “ I don’t know if you know why it needs to be hot, I don’t know if you know why it needs to be clean, I don’t know if you know, it’ll be a problem if you’re confused, I don’t know if you know but we like, we we we like to party.” Students of literature will recognize a classic rhetorical device at work here: anaphora, the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of successive phrases. One of the first English classifiers of rhetorical devices, the Renaissance writer Henry Peacham (Sr.) gives this example of anaphora: “To think on death it is a misery,/ To think on life it is a vanity;/ To think on the world verily it is,/ To think that here man hath no perfect bliss.” It is often used to build to a climax, as Psy does here, with “party.”
The song continues in a more ingenuous mode: “Hey there, if I’m going to introduce myself, I’m a cool guy with courage, spirit and craziness, What you wanna hear, what you wanna do is me. Damn! Girl! You so freakin sexy!” A couple of refrains later, we find enumeratio, the detailing of parts for the purpose of amplification: “Hey there, your head, waist, legs, calves.” (Compare Michel Foucault: “Any ontological history of our selves has to analyze three sets of relations: our relations to truth; our relations to obligations; our relations to ourselves and to others.”)
Note next, in the refrain, the use of diacope, the repetition of a word or phrase after an intervening word or phrase. The best-known example of diacope might be in Psalm 75: “We give thanks to Thee, O God, we give thanks.” In Gentleman, the refrain is, “ I’m a – ah– I’m a – I’m a mother-father gentleman.”
You might think that the endless repetition of “ah ah ah I’m a” in the refrain is merely meaningless, but using words for their tune and rhythm alone is common poetic practice, known as melopoeia (Greek for “song making”). The technique is used to narcotic effect in Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters, for example.
The text reaches its climax in the final frenetic stanza: “Gonna make you sweat. Gonna make you wet. You know who I am. Wet PSY! Wet PSY! Wet PSY! Wet PSY! PSY! PSY! PSY!” This is epizeuxis, repetition of a single word for emphasis. You might know epizeuxis best from Hamlet: When Polonius asks the prince what he is reading, Hamlet replies, “Words, words, words.”
At least now you know what’s going on technically in this very contemporary work of art: words, words, words.