The Atlantic, Gawker, CNN, my ex boyfriend, T. Pain, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and your mom have one thing in common: they are all talking about Psy, the Korean pop (KPop) YouTube sensation responsible for the viral “Gangnam Style.”
One CNN anchor went as far as to say, “of course, no one here in the U.S. has any idea what Psy is rapping about.” This might sound surprising considering the video has garnered over1 million YouTube views. Psy even made a cameo at the MTV Video Music Awards, and as of September 3rd was signed to Schoolboy Records by Scooter Braun —the man responsible for discovering Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen.
To break it down, the song has an electronic beat and is annoyingly catchy, the lyrics are mostly in Korean, and the now iconic “horse riding dance” featured throughout the music video is much what the name suggests
Psy and a changing entourage of Korean women shuffling bow legged like they are riding an imaginary horse. It is funny. But it isn’t so funny that I want to watch it two million times. But this may be where the genius of this video lays: we either get that it’s a satire of Korea’s conspicuous consumption, or we don’t and either way we’re laughing and showing our friends.
Having lived in Seoul for 14 months, from 2010 to2011, I’d say I have more of an understanding of “Gangnam Style” than your average American. It is Seoul’s most affluent 15-square mile area of metropolis. I’ve been to Gangnam, “the plastic surgery capital of Korea," window shopped, and bought bottled beers I couldn’t afford at a bar called Heaven which doesn’t open until 4 am. There is a certain “style” there if I may call it that, like how I’d imagine Rodeo Drive or Vegas might be—blatant affluence bordering on tastelessness.
The Gangnam Style music video opens with Psy, who was educated at both Boston University and Berklee School of Music, being fanned by a cute girl on what looks like a beach but as the camera pans out to focus on a young Asian boy doing a lively rendition of the horse dance, we realize what we thought was a beach was really just a sandy playground.
And that's sort of what it’s all about: Gangnam is just a playground where the rich can display their wealth and the not rich can pretend to. It's a little bit "Real Housewives” and a little bit "Beverly Hillbillies."
It is important to consider that Seoul was occupied and nearly destroyed by North Korean troops in 1950 and rebuilt with guidance from the UN in 1951. Being just over sixty years old means that essentially all money in Seoul is "new money."
South Korea is not known for their satire and most of their humor comes from slapstick comedy or game shows featuring celebrities doing ridiculous things. Psy knew his market and played to it offering a heavy dose of goofiness that ultimately won over his South Korean audience and his American "WTF is that crazy Asian doing?" audience.
It is of particular interest that one of the first major satirical statements; "Gangnam Style" has been such a point of pride for many South Koreans. It's not that they don't get the point that Psy is trying to make; they're far too educated for that to be true. It's that Koreans are willing to overlook the fact that they're being mocked and instead celebrate that KPop is finally having its moment in America. And that's the ultimate in "Gangnam Style"—having a moment, being recognized,” arriving" is the end all be all. They are not only celebrating Psy's satire they are perpetuating it.
Psy says he’s looking for “a classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee,” and I’m sure he’ll find her at the Starbucks in Gangnam. Or, across the street at O’Sulloc Tea House, Caffe Bene, Paris Baguette or one of the other countless coffee shops, wearing heels and fake eyelashes in the middle of the day, draining her tiny cup of excess.