There is a particular K-pop (Korean pop) music video that has become an Internet viral video sensation with both netizens and big-name celebrities alike. The video in question is Park Jaesang, better known as the rapper, PSY’s, new hit single: “Gangnam Style” (Video seen here). Famous for its music—which pairs traditional Korean melodies remixed with an irresistible, electronic beat—and its quirky, playful, and slapstick music video, it’s not hard to see why “Gangnam Style” has spread like wildfire across the Internet.
“Gangnam Style” is arguably one of the few examples of K-Pop that has successfully penetrated the American consciousness. Even celebrities ranging from T-Pain to Josh Groban and Nelly Furtado (Who performed her own “English cover” live in concert) have latched onto the video for its novelty and its trademark “invisible horse dance”. Notably, during a recent trip to the United States, PSY met with Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, for a private “talk”. Much speculation surrounds this meeting, but judging from Braun’s interest (He reportedly tweeted “HOW DID I NOT SIGN THIS GUY?!?”), a possible English remake may be in the works.
However, while “Gangnam Style” is wildly popular, there is an integral component of the song that might have been lost in translation with the average American.
While PSY might have seemingly come out of the blue, he has a strong presence in the K-pop scene as a member of a particular, genre of Korean entertainment known as “gwang-dae”. “Gwang-dae” was the term for a traditional caste of performers attached to royal households that had some license to critique the aristocracy with satirical music and dance. Modern “gwang-dae” performers continue this legacy, and are distinguished by their outlandish costumes and tendency towards slapstick and outlandish pratfalls.
In this tradition, PSY’s new single is a public roast of Korea’s increasingly materialistic society, notably prodding at the infamous Gangnam district. There is no easy “Western” equivalent to describe the Gangnam district, home of Korea’s wealthiest, and while some may have compared the lifestyle to the residents of Beverly Hills or the Upper West Side, that still is not an accurate representation of the district’s wealth. As writer Sukjong Hong of Open City writes: “Gangnam has no real equivalent in the United States. The closest approximation would be Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Beverly Hills, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Miami Beach all rolled into one.”
At its core, “Gangnam Style” is a parody of the high-life in its lyrics and even in its ridiculously catchy dance. It’s a song about a man trying to fit into the materialism the district is famous for, proclaiming that he is “Gangnam style”, but as the video demonstrates, is nothing more than buffoon playing at it. For instance, in one line he boasts that he is a man who can drink coffee in one gulp, and he insists he wants a woman who drinks coffee as well. It may be of little consequence to the average non-Korean, but it matches that theme of people playing at being rich. Koreans joke that there are women who will eat cheaply for lunch but then spend extra money on coffee, pointing out how willing some young women are to be seen at trendy coffee shops but to do so will choose to scrimp on the essentials to pay for expensive drinks. Thus, one can be “rich” by strategically spending money, a habit that PSY lovingly pokes at in his song.
“Gangnam Style” is a message about the way people play at being rich, hidden behind a music video that has certainly captured the hearts of many American fans. Whether these new fans can see beyond the quirky music video, and at PSY’s jab at Korean materialism remains unclear. Whatever the case, “Gangam Style” remains as one of the summer’s most surprising Internet hits, and perhaps, as more new fans gain an interest in PSY, they will come to understand his unique brand of social commentary found in his song and dance.