February 11, 2013 by Ian Goldstein
Psy’s catchy K-pop single “Gangnam Style” has been racking up superlatives since it went viral this past fall. The music video has become YouTube’s most viewed of all time, nearing 1.3 billion views as of this writing. The song is probably the most successful comedy single in history (sorry, Weird Al) and has spawned countless parodies (among them “Pyongyang Style,” “Mitt Romney Style,” and “MIT Style,” featuring Noam Chomsky). Though it’s been out for six months — quite a while in the internet era — “Gangnam Style” remains ubiquitous. Psy performed it at Times Square for New Year’s Eve, and when I went on a recent cruise, I heard the song at least once a day (both onship and in various Caribbean islands).
Some commentators have dismissed “Gangnam Style” as nothing more than clowning around. As humorist Dave Barry put in in his year in review, “we were assaulted from all sides by the monster megahit video ‘Gangnam Style,’ in which a man prances around a variety of bizarre South Korean settings riding an imaginary Korean horse and shouting a song that, except for the words “Eh, sexy lady,” is entirely in Korean.”
“Gangnam Style” certainly is silly, and most viewers likely only appreciate this aspect of it. Yet the song’s educational value far exceeds that of the average viral video. By simply conducting a little research, one can see that Psy has an interesting message about South Korean society and the rise of Asia.
In the song, Psy parodies the denizens of Seoul’s Gangnam District. This wealthy area is known for its expensive real estate, ostentatious lifestyle, and trendiness; some have compared it to Beverly Hills. Psy pokes fun at both residents of the district and wannabees. His character in the video flaunts his “Gangnam Style” life, which is really a cheap imitation of class. His seemingly luxurious beach is actually a children’s playground; his strut through a parking garage is marred by flying garbage; his tour bus is in fact an intercity coach. As for the lyrics, they are merely braggadocio by a guy who knows how to work hard and play hard and wants a girl who can do the same. Psy’s message seems to be that Gangnam residents are hardly the paragons of style they claim to be — rather, they are nouveau-riche poseurs.
What does this tell us about Korea and East Asia? The region has for decades been developing at a rapid pace and has become an economic and political power center. Economic growth has created new classes of wealthy elites, who gravitate to neighborhoods like Gangnam. These areas drive a burgeoning consumer economy, with luxury cars and other products as status symbols. In the process, such development creates new levels of social stratification, inequality, and resentment, as hinted at by Psy.
For a viral music video, then, “Gangnam Style” contains much to inform Americans about life on the other side of the world and the social and economic milieu of the early twenty-first century. I’ll take it over Rebecca Black’s “Friday” any day.