It would be easy to write off 34-year-old Korean rapper Park Jae-Song and his international breakout hit “Gangnam Style” as the culmination of a crazy-Asains-doing-silly-things mentality. For most of the media output from Korea, the western world, i.e. the US, can hardly do anything but raise an eyebrow—we don’t get their game shows, we don’t understand their celebrities, and we assume they’re trying to copy us and doing a terrible job of it. It is for this reason that K-pop and the world attached to it seldom breaks into the US market. This is why Park Jae-Song, who goes by performance name PSY, and his “Gangnam Style” video are so exceptional. In slightly over a month, the music video on YouTube has accrued 72 million views, in addition to celebrity shout-outs from T-Pain, Britney Spears, Josh Groban, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and has been covered in concert by Nelly Furtado.
While the US audience is cheering for the insanely poppy hit, most of South Korea is profoundly confused. South Korea has an entire sphere of young, attractive, and energetic K-pop stars like Lee Hyori, BoA, Kim Hyun Joong, and Super Junior—stars who emulate, to their best ability, the glamour, decadence, and style of celebrated US performers. While massively content with PSY’s international success, South Koreans wouldn’t have imagined a “gwang-dae” performer to make it big.
The gwang-dae cadre of musicians refers to a group of performers tied to the aristocracy, government, or noble families, who perform humorous acts to get at some deeper truths. Gwang-dae have certain license to make cutting satirical comments of the authorities that be and get away with it. They don’t have to be sexy performers (PSY is in his mid-thirties, has a plump face, and is anything but traditionally attractive) but they almost always top the charts, sell out shows, and excite their crowds.
PSY’s background hasn’t always been in line with the establishment. He was busted and arrested for possession of marijuana, and was revealed in an attempt to avoid mandatory military service in South Korea. PSY is a keen man who fluently speaks English and studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. It comes as little surprise that “Gangnam Style” is a small, smart, and subversive attack on the burgeoning opulence in the increasingly hypermaterialistic South Korea.
Gangnam is a 15-square-mile neighborhood with a massive real-estate market and corporate presence accounting for $84 billion in wealth. The most influential companies are headquartered in Gangnam, and the richest executives live who run the “chaebol” conglomerates—Samsung, Hyundai—live there too. The Gangnam district of Seoul is best compared, by writer Sukjong Hong, to US cities as “Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Beverly Hills, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Miami Beach all rolled into one.”
As South Korea’s greatest Fool, PSY’s target is Gangnam’s opulence—a fact I’m sure most American viewers miss when they watch PSY’s crazy-Asains-doing-silly-things act.
Through the video and the lyrics, it’s easy to tell PSY is acting for archetypical wannabeism—he is a chubby guy who is anything but aristocratic trying to make it in the Gangnam world. But PSY is the one making the jokes, not the punch line. He cuts to deeper truths.
South Korea is currently has the third-highest level of income disparity, and one of the highest levels of average household credit debt. The majority of the population wants to live large and does it on very little. People will spend the equivalent of $2 on a noodle meal but then spend $6 on Starbucks brand coffee. In the chorus of the song, PSY calls out “Oppan Gangnam Style,” which can translate to “I live the Gangnam style life” effectively pointing his finger at the himself, everything Gangnam style is, and everything it is not.
It is what PSY doesn’t have that turns the assumptions of Gangnam style on its head. The video begins with him on what seems to be a luxurious beach, but he’s really just at a park with kids. PSY appears to be walking down a runway with two ladies, but they’re really in a parking lot and have trash, not confetti thrown at them. PSY rides no real horse, but rather has an imaginary horse dance move (he does spend some time on a merry-go-round, though). He parties on a bus, not at a club, with tourists to the area. These examples might be stretched from their source, but satire is something relatively new to South Korea. It’s not perfectly placed, but it is there.
None of those reasons explain why “Gangnam Style” went viral. The reason we’re seeing it, and ultimately why one would know about it at all, is because Americans find Asian party culture vogue—we like flashy dancing, people doing goofy things, a catchy tune, and 30-something Korean men performing horse dances. PSY’s “Gangnam Style” provides on all counts.
“Gangnam Style” by PSY with English translations