PSY’s hit ‘Gangnam Style’ pokes fun at a real South Korean place
BY FOSTER KLUG AND YOUKYUNG LEE September 27, 2012 8:50PM
In this photo taken on Sept. 14, 2012, South Korean rapper PSY performs his massive K-pop hit "Gangnam Style" live on NBC's "Today" show in New York. His "Gangnam Style" video has more than 200 million YouTube views and counting, and it's easy to see why. Gangnam is only a small slice of Seoul, but it inspires a complicated mixture of desire, envy and bitterness. It's also the spark for PSY's catchy, world-conquering song. (AP Photo/Invision via AP Images, Jason DeCrow)
Updated: November 1, 2012 6:24AM
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean rapper PSY’s “Gangnam Style” video has more than 200 million YouTube views and counting, and it’s easy to see why. No Korean language skills are needed to enjoy the massively entertaining performer’s crazy horse-riding dance, the song’s addictive chorus and the video’s exquisitely odd series of misadventures.
Beneath the antic surface of his world-conquering song, however, is a sharp social commentary about the country’s newly rich and Gangnam, the affluent district where many of them live. Here’s a look at the meaning of “Gangnam Style”:
Gangnam is the most coveted address in Korea, but less than two generations ago it was little more than some forlorn homes surrounded by flat farmland and drainage ditches.
The district of Gangnam, which literally means “south of the river,” is about half the size of Manhattan. About 1 percent of Seoul’s population lives there, but many of its residents are very rich. The average Gangnam apartment costs about $716,000, a sum that would take an average South Korean household 18 years to earn.
As the price of high-rise apartments skyrocketed during a real estate investment frenzy in the early 2000s, landowners and speculators became wealthy practically overnight.
The notion that Gangnam residents have risen not by following the traditional South Korean virtues of hard work and sacrifice, but simply by living on a coveted piece of geography, irks many. The neighborhood’s residents are seen by some as monopolizing the country’s best education opportunities, the best cultural offerings and the best infrastructure, while spending big on foreign luxury goods to highlight their wealth.
“Gangnam inspires both envy and distaste,” said Kim Zakka, a Seoul-based pop music critic. “Gangnam residents are South Korea’s upper class, but South Koreans consider them self-interested, with no sense of noblesse oblige.”
In a sly, entertaining way, PSY’s song pushes these cultural buttons.
More mainstream K-Pop performers, already famous in South Korea and across Asia, have tried and failed to crack the American market.
So how did PSY — a.k.a. Park Jae-sang, a stocky, 34-year-old rapper who was fined nearly $4,500 for smoking marijuana after his 2001 debut — get to be the one teaching Britney Spears how to do the horse-riding dance on American TV?
He’s an excellent dancer, a confident rapper and he’s funny, but another reason for his breakthrough could be that less-than-polished image, said Jae-Ha Kim, a former Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic.
Part of the initial interest in “Gangnam Style,” she said, was a kind of “freak-show mentality, where people are like, ‘This guy is funny.’ But then you look at his choreography and you realize that you really have to know how to dance to do what he does.”
PSY, at times wearing sleeveless dress shirts with painted-on untied bowties, repeatedly flouts South Koreans’ popular notions of Gangnam in his video.
Instead of cavorting in nightclubs, he parties with retirees on a disco-lighted tour bus. As he struts along with two beautiful models, they’re pelted in the face with massive amounts of wind-blown trash and sticky confetti. The throne from which he delivers his hip-hop swagger is a toilet.
The song explores South Koreans’ “love-hate relationship with Gangnam,” said Baak Eun-seok, a pop music critic. The rest of South Korea sees Gangnam residents as everything PSY isn’t, he said: good-looking because of plastic surgery, stylish because they can splurge on luxury goods, slim thanks to yoga and personal trainers.
“PSY looks like a country bumpkin. He’s a far cry from the so-called ‘Gangnam Style,’ ” Baak said. “He’s parodying himself.”