YouTube hit Gangnam Style presents hidden satire
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 20:09
I must confess that I had not heard of the musical and cultural sensation known as “Gangnam Style” until earlier this week, though it burst onto the international pop music scene over two months ago. A song written and performed by the Korean musician Park Jae-sang (better known as Psy), the YouTube music video of his single has now been viewed 283 million times – 50 views every second, on average. When an artist and a culture are catapulted so quickly to international superstardom, the potential exists to convey a viewpoint, narrative or system of meanings to a significant portion of the world’s population with an effectiveness that politicians and celebrities alike would envy. Those meanings are thus worthy of consideration. After all, what exactly are we Americans doing listening to a pop song in a language most of us don’t understand? What is meant by that now-ubiquitous refrain, “Gangnam Style?”
Gangnam is actually a neighborhood in the South Korean capital of Seoul that is associated with affluence, fashion and South Korea’s social class of the noveaux riche. According to Psy, it represents “the Beverly Hills of Korea.” It is home to offices of some of South Korea’s most powerful investment and financial operations. Its student population is admitted to universities and studies abroad at a rate seven times higher than that of the nation as a whole. The value of the real estate in Gangnam is equivalent to $100 billion – one-tenth of the value of the entirety of South Korea. So to put it succinctly, “Gangnam Style” connotes ostentatious wealth, high social status and an attendant sense of cultural superiority. And Psy touches upon all of the tropes of popular culture that indicate this sort of style: high fashion, German sports cars and a proliferation of attractive women.
But upon closer inspection, we discover something strange about “Gangnam Style” – that there’s a hidden identity to Homo gangnamicus that is not so glamorous or appealing. The Atlantic’s Max Fisher has pointed out that illusions abound in the music video: we are tricked into believing in the first few minutes that Psy is at the beach when he’s actually reclining in a playground sandbox (Seoul has no oceanfront property, in Gangnam or elsewhere.) We see him dancing in parking garages and tour buses, not nightclubs. Even Psy’s iconic dance move, in which he mimics the undulation of horseback riding, is itself an illusion: he isn’t actually riding a horse, but pretends to be doing so anyway. And finally, the central irony of Gangnam’s conspicuous consumption: South Korean adults on average hold five credit cards and credit card debt equivalent to 150 percent of household income. The style is thus revealed to be utterly hollow. It indicates a certain class culture that drives South Koreans to appear wealthy and to spare no expense in maintaining that pretension.
Perceived more broadly, “Gangnam Style” reflects the remarkable transformations that have taken place in South Korean society since the 1950-53 Korean War. South Korea emerged from that conflict as poor and destitute as its northern neighbor, but the South has subsequently leapt forward into modernity and affluence while the North remains a starving potentate. The international success of Korean enterprise, of Samsung, Hyundai and LG as corporations and brands has produced immense wealth and lifted millions of people within one generation from poverty to comfortable middle class lifestyles and even to great wealth. Surely the memories of war and servility to foreign powers must serve to enhance the appeal of “Gangnam Style.”
But what becomes of a people and a culture that dreams impossible dreams and then chases after them on invisible horses? Due to the worldwide success of Psy’s music video, we can no longer ask this question just of South Korea – we must also ask it of ourselves. What is so disturbing – and yet so appealing and addictive – about “Gangnam Style” is its intimation that we are little more than vain and impotent creatures that exist only in the eyes of others. But we nevertheless revel in that vanity to the tune of an unforgettable Korean pop single.