Gangnam Style, Dissected

Korean pop star PSY’s video “Gangnam Style” has been viewed 49 million times on YouTube since its release this summer. It’s been covered by Nelly Furtado, turned into a metal song, and yet despite it’s popularity few truly understand the social commentary the song makes about South Korean society lying underneath that catchy beat.

angnam is a tony Seoul neighborhood, and Park’s “Gangnam Style” video lampoons its self-importance and ostentatious wealth, with Psy playing a clownish caricature of a Gangnam man. That alone makes it practically operatic compared to most K-Pop. But I spoke with two regular observers of Korean culture to find out what I was missing, and it turns out that the video is rich with subtle references that, along with the song itself, suggest a subtext with a surprisingly subversive message about class and wealth in contemporary South Korean society. That message would be awfully mild by American standards — this is no “Born in the U.S.A.” — but South Korea is a very different place, and it’s a big deal that even this gentle social satire isbreaking records on Korean pop charts long dominated by cotton candy.

“Korea has not had a long history of nuanced satire,” Adrian Hong, a Korean-American consultant whose wide travels make him an oft-quoted observer of Korean issues, said of South Korea’s pop culture. “In fact, when you asked me about the satire element, I was super skeptical. I don’t expect much from K-Pop to begin with, so the first 50 times I heard this, I was just like, ‘Allright, whatever.’ I sat down to look at it and thought, ‘Actually, there’s some nuance here.’”

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