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A message from ‘Gangnam Style’

Austin Lagomarsino | Friday, August 31, 2012

It is probably a reasonable assumption that each of you reading this has seen the newest South Korean pop hit “Gangnam Style” by PSY. If you have not, immediately put your tray away, leave the dining hall, head back to your dorm and look it up on YouTube. For those still reading without proper context, the song was released in America in late July. Since then, it has racked up an astounding 75 million hits on YouTube. With a catchy beat and fantastic accompanying dance moves, the song is being hailed as the first South Korean hit to make it in America.
For those unfamiliar with the song (and accompanying video), it follows PSY around Seoul as he searches for a girlfriend who has class but isn’t afraid to let her hair down when the time is right. The style he is looking for reflects the lifestyle of people in the Gangnam Province of Seoul, the ritzy, upscale section of the capital, hence the title . For reference, seven percent of all the wealth in South Korea is located in this 15-square-mile area. Throughout the video, PSY dances around a number of locations in Seoul, becoming involved in several dance battles before finding the kind of girl he is looking for. But within the video, masked by high energy dancing and comic relief, lies a deeper commentary no one would expect out of such a silly song and dance number.
The Atlantic was the first publication to note the socio-economic commentary played out in the music video in its article “Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation.” Throughout the video, PSY constantly sings about the actions of the men and women from the Gangnam province: how they drink expensive coffee, live lavish lifestyles and go to only the classiest of places. However, in his video, he is in the sauna not with businessmen, but with gangsters. His party bus is actually full of old tourists and disco balls. He even meets the girl of his dreams, not in a dance club or ballroom, but on the subway. When he is shown on the beach with girls, it turns out that he is simply at a children’s playground in a beach chair.
This mockery of the Gangnam lifestyle serves to show that it is overrated; while many South Koreans dream of living a life of excess, PSY points out wealth isn’t all that will make you happy. After all, he does get the girl in the end. This is contrasted with American music videos, where the singer is often at parties and in expensive clothes, surrounded by beautiful women as cash falls down from the ceiling.
The culture surrounding music itself was also parodied. The Atlantic noted PSY also makes subtle jokes about the music industry. One scene involves him parading down a hallway with two models as trash blows in their faces, clearly a parody of the classic red carpet and confetti scene of the rich and famous. These events always occur while PSY is dressed to the nines, wearing a fashionable outfit, a suit or even a tuxedo.
While K-Pop (Korean Pop Music) is apparently not big on social commentary, PSY likely drew from his exposure to American culture during his schooling in the United States. For years, music has been used to express what the artist cannot put into words and has long provided social, political and economic commentary. In recent times, however, artists that produce songs wrought with commentary never take themselves too seriously. PSY certainly doesn’t. Look at Macklemore, for example. Macklemore writes songs with powerful messages like the growing effect of consumerism (“Wings”), drug use, (“Otherside”), crime (“Soldiers”) and even politics (“The Bush Song”), and then comes out with songs like “And We Danced” and “Thrift Shop.” These songs are wildly entertaining and also expose a different audience to his deeper songs. These artists continue to create moving messages and call attention to many issues not seen in the mainstream news by the general public.
Perhaps this is exactly what the public needs, powerful messages delivered in such a way that they stick. While a poster or article will influence you for as long as you read it, a song you play a dozen times a week will be more likely to stay with you. And, as long as PSY keeps dancing his way to a better tomorrow, he’s going to have quite a few supporters along the way.
Austin Lagomarsino is a junior aerospace engineering major. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.