Say what you will about South Korean rapper PSY’s Gangnam Style video, but will probably have over 250 million views by the time you read this and interest hasn’t faded yet. The video is a strange sequence of moves, a horse-riding like dance that combines odd scenes – trash blown in his face, dancing on a tour bus, in a car park building, singing on a toilet, in a horse stable, and on it goes.
You don’t need to understand Korean to enjoy the entertaining PSY or the repetitive chorus of the song that has become the surprise viral hit. But there’s more going on here then just the odd moves as the video picks apart a fault line in Korean society.
No this didn’t come out of someone’s utterly wild imagination; it’s done as a spoof of a small but very influential segment of Korean society.
So video first, if you haven’t seen it, and then the Christian Science Monitor’s (CSM) effort to unpack the context:
Here’s the analysis from CSM:
Gangnam is the most coveted address in Korea, but less than two generations ago it was little more than some forlorn homes surrounded by flat farmland and drainage ditches.
The district of Gangnam, which literally means “south of the river,” is about half the size of Manhattan. About 1 percent of Seoul’s population lives there, but many of its residents are very rich. The average Gangnam apartment costs about $716,000, a sum that would take an average South Korean household 18 years to earn.
The seats of business and government power in Seoul have always been north of the Han River, in the neighborhoods around the royal palaces, and many old-money families still live there.
Gangnam, however, is new money, the beneficiary of a development boom that began in the 1970s.
As the price of high-rise apartments skyrocketed during a real estate investment frenzy in the early 2000s, landowners and speculators became wealthy practically overnight. The district’s rich families got even richer.
The new wealth drew the trendiest boutiques and clubs and a proliferation of plastic surgery clinics, but it also provided access to something considered vital in modern South Korea: top-notch education in the form of prestigious private tutoring and prep schools. Gangnam households spend nearly four times more on education than the national average.
The notion that Gangnam residents have risen not by following the traditional South Korean virtues of hard work and sacrifice, but simply by living on a coveted piece of geography, irks many. The neighborhood’s residents are seen by some as monopolizing the country’s best education opportunities, the best cultural offerings and the best infrastructure, while spending big on foreign luxury goods to highlight their wealth.
“Gangnam inspires both envy and distaste,” said Kim Zakka, a Seoul-based pop music critic. “Gangnam residents are South Korea’s upper class, but South Koreans consider them self-interested, with no sense of noblesse oblige.”
In a sly, entertaining way, PSY’s song pushes these cultural buttons.
PSY – his name coming from the first three letters in “Psycho” pulls this off with finesse. His Gangnam Style is anything but Gangnam, as he pokes fun at a community that many Koreans see has having unearned wealth, of having been the recipients of lucky breaks in real estate deals that now lets them afford plastic surgery, spend their time in spas, horseback ride, and enjoy a life of luxury.
PSY may look and act Psycho, but he’s unraveling a seam that lays bare the conflict between rapid gain of economic wealth and a society’s cultural traditions.