"Gangnam Style": What does it really mean?


By Kexin Zheng

When her producer eagerly shared this “hilarious Korean music video” early in July, Esther Kim, a Korean-American Television Radio Film major then interning at CNN Atlanta, did not laugh very hard. “This is how he usually comes up with his music. It wasn't really surprising,” Kim says.

However three months later, this Korean rap single “Gangnam Style” has surprised the world with its music video and dance moves that mimic riding on an invisible galloping horse. The rapper, writer and choreographer, PSY (short for Psycho), has received 479,777,291 views on YouTube, remains No. 2 on Billboardʼs Hot 100 and made fans like Ellen, Googleʼs CEO Eric Schmidt, and even Filipino prisoners across the world gallop at work, school and on national television. And when PSY deliberately waived his copyright to the hit song, the social media world instantly became obsessed as well.

YouTube now carries over 230,000 videos with the word “Gangnam Style” in the title. “Without the video, there would be no discussion of its popularity,” says Theo Cateforis, associate professor of music, history & cultures at Syracuse University. “The video incorporates a healthy dose of humor and dance moves that are easy to learn and repeat, and imagery that to American audiences is both exotic and novel.”

Korean pop stars are usually boy bands who sing and dance while looking fantastic. PSY is none of that. Born and raised in a wealthy family in Seoul, PSY came to the U.S. to study management at Boston University and later continued to study at the Berklee College of Music. He graduated from neither, yet learned to synthesize American electronic beats into Korean pop while eliminating the Asian innocence and Western cynicism. MeeRa Lee, a faculty fellow of Asian studies, credits the “kitschiness” of the song and the video to its popularity across cultures. “The power ʻGangnam Styleʼ in both the Korean and global context is the power of low culture that everybody can relate to. Everybody can laugh about it without understanding the lyrics.” Lee says.

Critics of the video find it comical but that is not all. When digging deeper into the content and critics claim that it serves as a satire of the luxurious lifestyle of residents of Gangnam, a 15-square-mile neighborhood that accounts for seven percent of South Koreaʼs GDP. Home to the countryʼs most expensive brands and apartments, the area also produces six percent of the students at Korea’s top national university and the majority of Koreans studying abroad.

Although the irony in the lyrics might seem obvious to Korean speakers, the satire remains unclear to those unfamiliar with the language. Rather than criticizing the rich who live in the area, the tune criticizes the outsiders who desire the fancy life and want to be associated with the “style.” Nevertheless, PSY claims himself both in the lyrics and publicly, to be the authentic Gangnam style or something that others cannot obtain if they were not born and raised there. “The implication that he wants to implant in his song is, in fact, magnifying the very division between the two classes, instead of actually unifying it,” Lee explained.

The song opens with its first line saying “Oppan Gangnam style,” which translate to “Your big brother I, am the Gangnam style.” As the Minnesota- based Korean blogger Jea Kim points out in the comments below the YouTube video, many people first thought what he said was “Open condom store.”

Most listeners think “Gangnam Style” as just another comical music video, yet for Michael Choi, an American-born Korean studying film at SU, the worldwide Gangnam phenomenon sparked the idea for a flash mob. Choi created the Facebook event for a Gangnam style flash mob on the SU quad the Saturday before Halloween. More than 200 students have signed up to attend, but with sponsorship from Sony and Redbull, Choi envisions a 600 hundred member mob with students all dressed in Halloween costumes. He compares PSY to the first Asian American NBA player Jeremy Lin. “I took it as an opportunity for almost everybody, but mainly Koreans, that if you have the balls to make something and put it out there, you will never know what happens.”

Don't know how to "Gangnam Style" yet? Want to participate in the flash mob? Head over the quad Saturday, October 27th, 2012 @ 2PM, for a quick dance tutorial and the announcement for the secret time/location of the Flash Mob. Redbull and Sony will be there to giveaway free SWAG! Best costumes will be awarded with cash and other giveaways.

The EditorsComment