By Samson Yuchi Mai
There is no doubt that the viral song, “Gangnam Style,” by Korean pop sensation Psy was an instant hit the moment it came to the States. Psy has appeared on various shows like Ellen, the VMA awards, and now he even has a Gangnam Style fashion line collaboration with Jill Stuart. This song has captured the imaginations of Americans and non-Americans alike, and there have been countless parodies of the now famous horse dance. Psy and his horse dance are becoming cultural icons. However, many people are not aware of Psy’s underlying message in his hit song. In fact, since his song has gained so much media attention, he has changed his message of its motivation.
Psy has stated that he never intended for his song to be for an American or international audience. That is why most of his song is in Korean with the exception of the words, “Ehhhhhh Sexy Lady,” “Korean,” and “style.” His original intention was to use humor to ridicule the image of the people in the Gangnam district and connect this satire with the current trends in South Korean and global society.
The underlying trend that explains the making of this hit song is the rise of the South Korean economy. Its economic growth occurred simultaneously with the transition of the country from a military dictatorship to a democracy. It was one of the four Asian Tigers during the 1970s and 1980s that followed the explosive growth rates of Japan’s economy. South Korea is now the world’s eleventh largest economy. Many of its brands like Samsung and Hyundai are household names.
However, serious questions have been raised about the sustainability of South Korea’s economic model. The top ten chaebols, conglomerates in various sectors like finance, electronics, and energy produce 77 percent of South Korea’s GDP. Academic studies have shown that these chaebols act like their counterparts in Japan, keirestsus, which are rent seeking organizations that hold a huge share of the market and stifle competition.
Although South Korea has experienced astounding economic growth, it has not been equal throughout all parts of society. Similar to what is happening now in China, there is unequal economic growth between the provinces due to economic and military interests. The inflation in certain areas like Gangnam contributed to real estate bubbles that eventually led to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The disparity is also evident in income equality and education attainment. 41 percent of the students that attend Seoul University, the top university in the country, come from Gangnam district. The OECD cites South Korea as having the third-highest level of income disparity among the industrialized nations.
In order to understand the meaning of his artistic production, it is necessary to understand what the Gangnam district is. Gangnam district is a 15 square mile area in Seoul that produces $84 billion of South Korea’s GDP. That is equivalent to seven percent of its total GDP. Gangnam also is the central consumer hub for South Korea. Gangnam is so wealthy that it has more net value than Busan, South Korea’s second largest city. Brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci have their flagship Korean stores in Gangnam district. All the elite families that run big Korean conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai have their residences in Gangnam.
Americans might have a difficult time understanding how powerful and wealthy Gangnam is. According to Susan Kang, the chief evangelist of Soompi.com, “The closest approximation would be Silicon Valley, Beverly Hills, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Miami Beach all rolled into one.” Psy was bold because he did what other few Korean artists dared to do: parody the nation’s wealthiest neighborhood and its inhabitants.
He thought his parody of Gangnam would gain traction with the domestic audience because of their opinions of the residents that live there. The Wall Street Journal reported that three quarters of Koreans polled in a survey done by reformists in the ruling Saenuri thought chaebols were immoral organizations. Recent events have solidified these views, as Chey Tae-Woo, chairman of SK Group, was indicted on charges of embezzlement.
As a Gwang-dae performer, a combination of jester and comedian, Psy can get away with his parody. The Gwang-dae traces its origins back to the caste of performers that entertained South Korean royal households. They were given license to criticize the aristocracy to a certain extent due to the protection of the royal patron.
Psy is considered a social deviant by South Korean standards. He was caught smoking marijuana and tried to dodge the mandatory military draft. He does not fit the norm of most South Korean stars. He does not look like a model as opposed to other big names in the industry like Super Junior and Wonder Girls. His first album was fined for inappropriate and profane content and his second album was outright prohibited. His music offers social commentary which is considered “operatic” in the industry according to The Atlantic. He writes his own songs and produces his own choreography which is another rarity in the industry.
In fact, Gangnam Style contains underlying subtleties. He pokes fun at the materialism that is rampant in South Korean society. Much of the consumer spending is driven by credit, as the average adult has five credit cards. This credit bubble is driven by the illusion that the continual economic boom since the late 1990s will continue. Much of the youth and adults in South Korea try to emulate the spending patterns of the wealthy from Gangnam. South Koreans joke at women who would spend $2 on Ramen for a meal, but they are more than willing to spend $6 or more on coffee. He parodies this behavior in the opening of the song when the scene begins with Psy tanning at a beach resort, but it ends up being a playground. Blogger Jea Kim lambasts this type of behavior: “It’s about how people outside of Gangnam pursue their dream to be one of those Gangnam residents without even realizing what it really means.” Behind the scenes in the music video of Gangnam Style, in a rare moment of candidness, Psy says, “Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic. Each frame by frame was hollow.” Kim characterizes the aspirations of South Korea as “nothing but materialistic and about people who are chasing rainbows.”
Many of these trends are familiar to American and international audiences. American society and its economy are based around consumerism and credit. On the other hand, the consumer is a dull agent not knowing what products he buys or the philosophy behind each brand name. Consumers buy for the aesthetics and social status, not fully comprehending what the fundamental value of the product is. Many Americans try to emulate the lifestyle and spending behaviors of the rich whether the person is a Wall Street banker or a hipster. With high unemployment rates especially among the youth, can the true message of the “horse dance” resonate with the American public?
1.Fischer, Max. “Gangnam Style Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation.” The Atlantic. 2012. Web: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/08/gangnam-style-dissected-the-subversive-message-within-south-koreas-music-video-sensation/261462/
2.Yang, Jeff. “Gangnam Style’s US Popularity has Koreans Puzzled, Gratified.” Wall Street Journal. 28 Aug. 2012. Web: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/08/28/gangnam-style-viral-popularity-in-u-s-has-koreans-puzzled-gratified/tab/video/
3.“K-pop diplomacy.” Al Jazeera. 3 Sep. 2012. Web: http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/k-pop-diplomacy-0022328
Photo by Stuart Grout