You've probably been living under a rock in the past couple weeks if you haven't heard Psy's "Gangnam Style." Earlier this year, the song's music video became an Internet sensation that caught the attention of a few celebrities. With nearly 285 million views on YouTube as of this post, buzz around "Gangnam Style" is at full storm. It's even spawning wedding video remakes.
Part of the appeal is its catchy tune, but another part are the images of Koreans (including himself) looking absolutely ridiculous. It's easy for Americans to assume that Koreans are as out of touch as the Japanese people portrayed in Lost in Translation. But what is it really behind the song and the images from its music video?
This morning, I picked up on a story from APM's Marketplace about this. The takeaway? Psy is likely making fun of the image-conscious super-rich that live in Seoul's Gangnam District. While only 3 percent of South Korea live there, "40 percent of Seoul's registered assets were concentrated in Gangnam" in June 2010, according to writer Sukjong Hong. Although I could be wrong, it looks like she wrote the seminal piece interpreting "Gangnam Style" as social commentary about income inequality. Around the same time, The Atlantic also ran a story about the song as social commentary about Koreans being flashy and living beyond their means.
Since Hong's piece ran in Open City, Psy continued to take the world by storm. He performed the song on the Today show a couple weeks ago. In a piece that resonates with me, one writer shared his views on how Psy's success is an example of how mainstream American culture continues to view Asian males as effeminate and non-threatening. Another piece supported this argument, but adds that we should refrain from concluding that Psy is trying to make any profound statement:
People, Gangnam Style is not that profound. If you told any Korean that Gangnam Style was a subversive parody of materialism, s/he will laugh at your face. At the end of the day, it is a silly party song.
I am inclined to agree with that summary, because I can't find any interview or quote of Psy giving a detailed explanation about the meaning of his song, aside from the fact that it's about Gangnam District. At the same time, it's a great opportunity for us to reflect and examine how it really could be social commentary. This is how art works.