"Dress Classy and Dance Cheesy!"
Posted on Oct 4, 2012 / Author: Christine Park / Tags: Education, Culture and Communities, Gangnam Style, k-pop, Psy
Source: ‘Psy - ‘Gangnam Style (강남스타일) M/V, YG Entertainment
You might have heard these words recently, spoken by South Korean sensation Psy, on multiple high-profile television programs. From teaching Britney Spears how to do the now infamous ‘horse dance’ to appearing on Saturday Night Live, Psy is now ‘mainstream’ to a Western audience. He was even parodied by North Korea (if you can say SNL and North Korea has parodied you in the same sentence then you know you’re a big deal). He caught the attention of Scooter Braun, who signed him to his label (the same label as Justin Beiber), and recently broke a world record with over 300 million (and counting) ‘Likes’ on YouTube.
Regardless of whether Psy is here to stay or will be a one-hit-wonder, we probably won’t be forgetting the ‘horse dance’ anytime soon (we still remember the “Macarena” and the “Y-M-C-A” don’t we?). But dances aside, what makes Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ different is the social satire of the song and video, coupled with the unlikely star that is Psy himself.
“What is ‘Gangnam Style’ and why is it so popular?” are questions that pop up frequently in water-cooler conversations and internet articles alike. Gangnam is an affluent district in Seoul situated South of the Han River (Gangnam literally translates into “River South” or “South of the River”) where all the most expensive schools, real estate, shops, cafes and restaurants are located. It is where people go to see and be seen and where South Korea’s ‘1%’ lives.
Oh yes, income disparity galore.
On one hand, many admire and wish to emulate the wealthy people of Gangnam, buying designer labels and sipping expensive coffee in cafes in Gangnam – even if they can’t afford it. Coffee is disproportionately expensive in South Korea, yet anyone who has been to one of Korea’s big cities will notice the ‘cafe culture’ - coffee shops can be seen everywhere sporting ‘themes’ ranging from Princess cafes (where you can rent a ‘princess’ dress to wear for a photo shoot and while you sip your coffee) to dog cafes (where puppies are free to run around as you enjoy your drink). However, no matter how many cafes are there to satiate your caffeine needs, the coffee with the most ‘status’ is Starbucks. Psy raps about wanting a lady who can drink this expensive coffee, while boasting that he’s the type of man that can chug that coffee in ‘one-shot.’ This indirectly makes fun of ‘Doenjangnyeo’ – or ‘Soybean paste women/girls’ – referring to women who are not wealthy and will pay as little as possible for food but will always be carrying around a Starbucks coffee that was more than double the price (roughly $5-6) of their food to uphold this image.
On the other hand, many people are getting sick of the income disparity and view the affluent of Gangnam to be princelings who have not earned their status and wealth. Psy mocks this materialism and showcases it to be nothing more than a facade. ‘Gangnam Style’ starts off with Psy sunbathing on what appears to be a luxurious beach, but shortly after we find out that he’s merely relaxing on the sandy part of a playground. Another scene shows Psy sitting on what looks to be a luxurious chair - then we find out it’s a toilet. There are several other scenes that mock this lifestyle (a great break down of the video’s scenes can be found here).
Interestingly enough, Psy himself grew up in Gangnam. Perhaps he is telling us that people in Gangnam might dress up classy, but aren’t necessarily better than the average citizen and therefore dance– not chic, classy, graceful – but ‘cheesy’. Or maybe he wants to tell us not to take this vapid, materialistic, yet adored and sought-after lifestyle so seriously. In a recent interview with Ryan Seacrest, Psy inferred that his role in the K-pop scene had been relegated to that of an aging artist (he’s 34) that once in awhile gives a ‘good job’ pat on the back to new, much younger, artists (most of whom are more than 10 years younger than him). Psy’s image is quite the opposite of these new, much younger K-pop artists with their sugar-coated pop hits, complex dance moves, plastic-surgery-adorned faces, and record-company carefully-crafted images. Yet these groups have not ‘made it’ in the West (some groups like the Wondergirls have tried and failed) despite their massive successes around Asia. Psy himself, in an interview on the ‘Today’ show, expressed bafflement at his success saying, “I’m not tall, I’m not muscular, I’m not skinny, but I’m sitting here.”
Perhaps his popularity is due to the fact that he could bring a smile to your face, incite ‘horse dance’ mania and just make you want to bob your head to the beat of the song without having to understand the lyrics. Gangnam Style is something familiar paired with something new. The social critique might be lost on most people, but Psy’s success has opened the door to better understanding a different part of the world (and maybe even illustrating the fact that countries like South Korea are not so un-relatable).
Or maybe I’m just over-analyzing here and what we really need to do is just get up and dance.
The music video for ‘Gangnam Style’ can be watched on Youtube here.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.