When PSY first dreamed up Gangnam Style, he claimed he only wanted to create a video and a song with a tinge of silliness to help distract people from the world’s economic problems. Well, PSY, just an average ah-jeo-shi (a Korean fellow older than a student), has gone beyond distraction to global obsession. As I type this, his catchy video has been viewed 842,525,969 times (half of those views are mine!). PSY raced to the top of the charts faster than Justin Bieber can burp out “Baby,” and this bemusing dance has caught fire and ensnared almost everyone in its magical gallop, from Ban-ki Moon to Filipino prisoners. Korean women in those oversized sun visors are imitating those moves, and my friend’s five-year-old recently belted out, “Hey, 60 ladies.” And why?
The brilliance of Gangnam Style, and PSY, is not the 4-step horse dance; it is a song that resonates with many across the world, while of course infuriating others including Bill O’Reilly, who asked one of Fox News’ cranks, “What is going on?” And while PSY insists he is only making fun of “posers” who want to be part of Gangnam, the tony section of south Seoul, the video is full of subtexts and witty satire. For Korea, Gangnam Style is a great coming of age moment for a small country that packs an outsized punch on the world’s economic and technology scenes, but still finds itself overlooked compared to much larger neighbors China and Japan.
Like much of Seoul, Gangnam is not particularly attractive. As Seoul’s population spilled south of the Han River in the 1970s and 1980s, nondescript apartment buildings popped up over what were once farms and rice paddies. But Gangnam neighborhoods such as Apgujeong-dong became Seoul’s center of fashion, consumption and a lifestyle that few Koreans could realistically afford; the rest resented Gangnam, or wished they could have a taste of it. As Korea’s economy soared even higher during the 1990s, Gangnam (and the rest of Seoul, in fairness) exhibited even more absurdities–it was not unheard of for Koreans (and expats) to scrimp and pay over 3000 won ($4 at the time) for a cheap lunch in a hole-in-the-wall joint while plopping down double that amount for a cup of instant coffee at a chain such as The Bodyguard (yes as themed after the Whitney Houston movie) or Falling in Coffee. These inconsistencies still occur today, though the coffee is drip and the venue is a Starbucks or a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. The point, of course, was not the coffee or the $8 kiwi juice, but to be seen in one’s Gucci platform shoes, Ssamzie bag or Burberry scarf, many of which were, ironically, knockoffs themselves.
Now Korea is no longer the land of the knockoffs. Companies such as Samsung and LG churn out incredibly innovative products and their brands are amongst the most recognizable in the world. Korea is one of the world’s most wired countries on earth and is leading in cutting edge advances such as smart grid and nanotechnology. But the path was not easy. Korea endured a gut-wrenching economic crisis in the late 1990s and has since suffered an increasing gap between rich and poor, youth unemployment is high, workers over 40 worry that they will be laid off and replaced with younger and lower-paid workers, and credit card debt has skyrocketed. So here comes PSY at the most opportune time: Korea has achieved impressive macroeconomic gains, but not all Koreans feel as if they have a stake in their country’s success. Plus, many feel that the majority of Gangnam residents are not the tycoons who drove the country’s transformation a generation ago, but instead, they are trust fund babies who are living off of their parents’ or grandparents’ success. They have the connections and resources the majority of Koreans lack. This inequality creates a mix of awe, jealously and derision.
So is there a subversive message within Gangnam Style? Not according to PSY: wannabes in Gangnam are the same as transplanted urban hipsters in Brooklyn and aspiring actors in LA’s Silver Lake who flaunt attitude about their post code while barely making ends meet to get by in an overpriced and overrated neighborhood. If you watch Gangnam Style a few times, nuances will emerge: that beach scene in the beginning is just a sandbox wedged within a chock-a-block grouping of apartment towers; the posh swimming pool is really in an old-time Korean public bath; PSY’s hottest dance moves are in a bus full of women old enough to be his mother.
But artists rarely get to decree the underlying themes of the work they create.
This underdog has inspired flash mobs across the world and spoof videos filmed by people of all ages who don’t understand a word of Korean but are catching on to Gangnam Style nonetheless. The song about downing a coffee in one shot and “my ideas have more bulge than my muscles” has even emboldened people to stick it to the powers that be. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s parody of Gangnam Style (in handcuffs, to protest Chinese media censorship) was quickly removed by Chinese officials. The brouhaha over the firing of lifeguards spoofing the video has made a city council and bureaucrats in a southern California town look idiotic.
What is delicious about Gangnam Style’s popularity is that it took a 34-year-old (practically geriatric for Korean recording artists) to make Korean pop an international sensation. While K-pop has become more popular beyond Korea’s shores, no singer or group has ever resonated in the U.S, or anywhere really for a long period of time. The girl bands were too girly and the boy bands make the Backstreet Boys look like ZZ Top. Korean artists were trying too hard to play in the U.S. market by trying to be American, not Korean. Instead it took a chubby average-looking dude exuding quintessential Korean mannerisms to become a hit with celebrities like Britney Spears and DJs at gay bars. The tune is certainly catchy, but for many, the appeal is PSY’s underdog status as a pot-smoking goofball who avoided his country’s military service. PSY screwed up, made mistakes, and at a core level, is a nice guy who is taking on the international stage while staying true to his culture.
Watch for this song to inspire more people to needle the powers that be for quite a while. Gangnam Style’s not going away: after all, over 300,000 more people watched the video in the time it took me to write this.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.