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“Gangnam Style“‘s Subversive Critique of South Korean Materialism

Gangnam Style

Chances are, you’ve probably seen the video for ​“Gangnam Style”, or at least, have seen it mentioned on Facebook, Twitter, et al. Since it’s premier in July 2012, the video — which features Korean rapper Psy galloping around gorgeous women, playgrounds, shiny cars, and a stable of horses — has gone viral, and for good reason. It’s incredibly goofy and entertaining, the sort of ​“what the heck am I watching?” experience that you immediately feel compelled to share with friends. The video’s goofiness, not to mention the actual song’s catchiness, has made it K-Pop’s first big crossover hit.

However, beneath all of the humorous scenes, which seem like simple parodies of hip-hop music clichés as much as anything else, lies a message that might be far more subversive, especially for South Korea. The Atlantics Max Fisher writes:

I certainly didn’t [know what Psy is rapping about], beyond the basics: Gangnam is a tiny Seoul neighborhood, and Park’s ​“Gangnam Style” video lampoons its self-importance and ostentatious wealth, with Psy playing a clownish caricature of a Gangnam man. That alone makes it practically operatic compared to most K-Pop. But I spoke with two regular observers of Korean culture to find out what I was missing, and it turns out that the video is rich with subtle references that, along with the song itself, suggest a subtext with a surprisingly subversive message about class and wealth in contemporary South Korean society. That message would be awfully mild by American standards — this is no ​“Born in the U.S.A.” — but South Korea is a very different place, and it’s a big deal that even this gentle social satire is breaking records on Korean pop charts long dominated by cotton candy.

Jea Kim offers some more in-depth analysis of ​“Gangnam Style”, as well as a brief history lesson in South Korea’s history and recent development. She writes:

Over the past four decades, Gangnam has become an iconic place to Korean people, representing wealth, status, and luxurious life. PSY’s ​“Gangnam Style” is a satire about the Gangnam life itself which is nothing but materialistic and about people who are chasing rainbows, dreaming of becoming a Gangnam resident someday. If you had googled the phrase 강남스타일 (“Gangnam Style”) before the release of his song, you would have seen so many questions asking ​“What the heck is Gangnam style.” (Now you’ll get results almost all about the song.) As Gangnam earned the enviable reputation ​“overnight” (compared to Korea’s 5000-year-old history) as the best place to live not because it offers rich heritage, sophistication, or cultural legacy, people don’t really know exactly what they are longing for even in the midst of longing for the ​“Gangnam style.” And here, PSY is being sarcastic about the idea of ​“Gangnam style” that is not actually tangible, just like the ​“Emperor’s New Clothes”.

As an added bonus, here’s a video of Psy performing ​“Gangnam Style” at a recent concert. There’s something delightfully ironic about a song critiquing materialistic excess being performed in such an excessive manner. But there’s a time for social criticism, and there’s a time for busting a move. This is clearly the latter.

PSY performing “Gangnam Style” at Summer Stand Live Concert

On a related note, ​“Gangnam Style” might be K-Pop’s first big crossover hit, but the Korean pop music has been making inroads into American pop culture for the last year or so. Pitchfork ran a feature on K-Pop back in November 2011 that spotlighted artists such as G-Dragon, Hyuna, and 2NE1. Also, it’s not just K-Pop that is beginning to appear on America’s pop culture periphery: a slew of Korean television programs are now easily accessible via Netflix and Hulu. One of the biggest is the action drama City Hunter, which my friend Seth recently wrote about for Christ and Pop Culture.

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