It seems that everyone is doing a tribute video or a flash mob dance version of GANGNAM STYLE these days. There haven’t been a dance craze based on a song sung in foreign tongue since the Lambada or the Macarena. Most Americans have no idea of what PSY is rapping about in Korean, but they became hooked nevertheless. Everyone just loves to “giddy up” to the thumping beats. Korean pop music has already found a niche audience, but GANGNAM STYLE may have just pushed K-Pop to the mainstream. Stars such as Nelly Furtado, Britney Spears and T-Pain all love it. Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, invited PSY to come to Los Angeles for a few high level meetings, along with a Dodger’s Game to boot. The L.A. sojourn proved to be productive: it was announced that PSY has landed an American record deal with Scooter Braun’s label.
PSY, (real name, Park Jae-sang), is not your typical K-Pop star. He’s already in his thirties, he’s chubby and he looks like your typical Asian dad. Despite his appearance, what sets him apart is he writes his own songs and does his own choreography. His career have been a roller coaster ride: from having one of his earlier albums being banned, to the South Korean media accusing him of being a draft dodger. One of his unique gifts is bringing comedy and satire to his lyrics. Most people may only know of tear jerking Korean dramas and soap operas, it should be noted that Korean cinema is extremely gifted with social satire when it comes to comedy. Films such as ATTACK THE GAS STATION and FOXY FESTIVAL are hilarious, but they also make us realize the social injustice that is often the bitter pill for many to swallow. GANGNAM STYLE is such an example. Gangnam is an exclusive district within Seoul which is the equivalent of Beverly Hills. Despite the rapid economic progress of South Korea within the past two decades, a widening gap of wealth inequality has emerged. Seoul joined the ranks of the Occupy Movement last year. The satire and lyrics of GANGNAM STYLE may not be obvious to the western ear, but it is ripe with irony. The English translation of its lyrics mentions a beautiful girl having a cup of coffee. It’s just not any cup of coffee: the girl is having a cup of coffee at a cafe in Gangnam. That may not mean much to us, but for most Koreans who don’t live in the Gangnam district, it is a status symbol. A simple cup of coffee turns into a symbol of the have’s and the have-not’s.
Everything is not what it seems. In the music video accompanying the song, PSY’s enjoying a cocktail not at a luxurious beach, but a local children’s playground. He’s strutting through a stable of thoroughbreds, but he’s not riding them. Instead, he does a silly dance pretending he is riding one of them. And here is the real genius element: the GANGNAM STYLE dance could very well be seen as a metaphor of something that most people want, but cannot afford to have. So subtle, but yet effective with biting social satire. Perfect for the current economic crisis. You don’t have to understand Korean to get the concept of the song. PSY has hit a nerve with everyone worldwide, something most other K-Pop stars have failed to do.
It certainly is not all coming up roses these days, but GANGNAM STYLE has become a moniker for Asian swagger. Like PSY’s character in the video, he may not be a Gangnam citizen, but he enjoys life to the fullest. Be it may be in a sauna with mobsters, on a tour bus with pensioners or having drinks in a ratty playground sandlot , the guy’s got SWAG. Perhaps PSY wants to remind us to be proud of what we have. Happiness doesn’t only exist in wealthy neighborhoods; it can be found in your own back yard.
Ride on, PSY, ride on!