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.’”