Enlightenment Perspectives

SLG Gangnam Style Viewer Tips


Gangnam Style is stylistically or culturally grounded in Korean themes, and how it might be reflecting some of the social issues in modern Seoul life. Regardless of my own personal speculation and my loose contextualization, I would not encourage anybody to view ‘Gangnam Style’ too deeply or cynically. It is, after all, a catchy horse dance with a hypnotic beat. Let’s start dancing.

Ajumma and Agasshi: Gangnam Style Viewer Tips

[box]Ajumma and Agasshi: The Reign of Korean Women” will focus on examining Gender, Society and Culture in Korean daily life.[/box]

Korean Magazine reports “PSY SHOCK”, following the
surprising international success of ‘Gangnam Style’

“Ehhhhh Sexxyyy Laaddddyyy”.  By now, exposure to PSY’s Kpop/international youtube hit ‘Gangnam Style’ has extended beyond the point of a ‘niche novelty’.  It is simply impossible to avoid seeing ‘Gangnam Style’ on TV, on facebook, or hearing it in a mall or a taxi.  Looking deeper beyond the horse dance, many people outside of Korea are questioning what this Korean song might actually mean.  As an Australian who lives in Korea, I have been asked to shed a little light on what the possible themes or cultural background behind ‘Gangnam Style’ might be.  It is not easy to bring something fresh to an internet world that is already saturated with ‘Gangnam Style critiques’ that have been composed in every country and in every language around the globe.  However, I hope to perhaps elaborate on a couple of small points as to how Gangnam Style is stylistically or culturally grounded in Korean themes, and how it might be reflecting some of the social issues in modern Seoul life.  Regardless of my own personal speculation and my loose contextualization, I would not encourage anybody to view ‘Gangnam Style’ too deeply or cynically.  It is, after all, a catchy horse dance with a hypnotic beat.  Let’s start dancing.

GS Tip One: PSY Style

Firstly, one important fact that you should know before deconstructing Gangnam Style is that PSY has never been an average Korean working dude.  Most Koreans are aware that PSY’s father is a wealthy President of a very successful company in Korea.  Perhaps as a result of this, PSY feels more free and confident to sing outlandish and occasionally sexually suggestive (by Korean standards) lyrics because he grew up in a very wealthy atmosphere (most likely in Gangnam) and he was quite famous before his musical debut. PSY was informally known around the party districts as ‘the King of Nightclubs’ in the Gangnam area, as he was famous for big drinking and dancing.  In contrast to most Kpop idol stars who are recruited and trained by giant Entertainment Corporations from 13 or 14 years of age, PSY came to Kpop quite late in the game, and he debuted around the age of 25, which is a vintage age to debut, by Kpop standards.  Now, at 34 years of age, he is considered to be a dancing calcified trilobite by Kpop standards.  PSY’s personal experiences have perhaps influenced his musical themes, as he is one of the few Korean idols signed under a Kpop corporation to exclusively write and choreograph his own music.

Cartoon oddly contrasting PSY with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

GS Tip Two: Gangnam Geography

Just to be very clear in definition, in Korean language, ‘Gangnam 강남’ literally translates as ‘South of the River’ in Korean.  Gang means river. Nam means South.  Seoul is separated in the middle by a giant river stretching from East to West.  It is called the Han River.  Property South of the Han River (including the Gangnam district) is generally much more expensive than property North of the River.  This is due to the fact that the Southern parts of Seoul developed a little later than the North, and a property boom took place South of the river around twenty years ago.  Seoul’s financial district is also located South of the River.  So in terms of housing, if someone lives in Gangnam, there is an implication that that person must be wealthy, come from a wealthy family, and they potentially live in a very expensive apartment.  That is obviously not always the case, however a number of my male and female Korean friends have joked that they would prefer to find a marriage partner from the Gangnam area (I don’t actually think they are joking…).

Map of Seoul, depicting Gangnam’s southern location

GS Tip Three: Articulating the ‘Oppa’

No one has directly explained what an ‘Oppan/Oppa’ is yet… so I think I should fill you in.

During the Chorus, PSY exclaims;

“O! O! O! O! Oppan Gangnam Style…”

An ‘Oppa’ is not an object or place, but is rather PSY referring to himself.  In Korea, a girl may refer to her older brother or any male who is older than herself (but not too much older) as her ‘Oppa’.  Oppan Gangnam Style may be loosely translated as ‘This older male is Gangnam Style’ (with PSY referring to himself in the first person).  There is no accurate translation for ‘Oppa’ in English.  Keep in mind that only women can use the term ‘Oppa’.  No Korean dude would be caught dead calling another dude ‘Oppa’.

Luigina and her Korean homestay sister making their
‘Gangnam Style’ parody video

GS Tip Four: One Shot of Coffee

PSY boasts in the song that he is the type of guy who ‘One-shots his coffee before it even cools down’.  Many non-Koreans may be wondering why it is such a big deal to drink a shot of coffee.  In Seoul, coffee is a big thing.  There are hundreds of coffee shops lining the streets of Gangnam.  It is almost impossible to walk a block without passing three to five coffee shops crammed next to and on top of each other.  Koreans, at least from my personal observations, attach some status to the idea of sitting in a cafe and drinking coffee, unlike in my native Australia, where people usually buy take-out coffee and consider it to be a wake-up beverage.  In Korea, couples can spend hours upon hours sitting in coffee shops and gazing coyly over at each other.  Korea has a severely couple-oriented culture, and I mostly sit alone in Korean coffee shops, staring spitefully at these incredibly romantic Korean couples sitting next to each other and texting love poetry.

One other interesting point to note is that coffee in Korea is much more expensive than a lot of food in Korea.  For example, in Seoul I usually spend about 4 to 5,000 Korean won on lunch, but maybe 6,000 won on coffee.  For this reason, coffee is still considered to be somewhat of a luxury in Seoul, as it is considered to be seriously overpriced and for people who aren’t pinching their pennies.

GS Tip Five: Rich and Showy, or Poor and Showy

Gangnam is often criticized and stereotyped in Korea as the more arrogant, capitalist-focused, and perhaps less traditional part of Seoul.  The real original residents of Gangnam may have been farmers, who became millionaires overnight when a property boom ignited in the Gangnam region in the late 80s and early 90s.  The original image of Gangnam was not of sophistication, but of a new class of wealthy individuals who sprung from a lower, perhaps agricultural class of people.  Those first original property holders probably don’t have the time or the interest these days to wonder freely boasting that they are ‘from Gangnam’, but there are certainly a large number of Seoulites who travel to Gangnam from less glitzy parts of Seoul who attempt to schlepp some luxury products around and boast loudly that they are ‘from Gangnam’.  Alternatively, a young person may try to find the oldest and tiniest two-square-meter ‘apartment’ in Gangnam at an exorbitant price just to drop into conversation that they ‘live in Gangnam’ (they will probably never let you visit their apartment, however, just to keep some mystery about their economic circumstances).  You know when you are sitting among the real deal when you sit in a Gangnam coffee shop, and you look over to see a group of 60-year old women dripping with excessive jewellery, clutching the most difficult to find Birkin and Hermes bags, sporting fur jackets, and possibly dark designer glasses.  This is ‘real Gangnam’, and these may be the original wives of those first men who profited from the property boom when Gangnam originally became the shiny and unlikely embodiment of Western-style capitalism in Korea.

The visual paradoxes in ‘Gangnam Style’ are plentiful and reflect the differences between the slick appearance and the hard reality of so-called ‘Gangnam-style’. The opening scene depicts PSY being fanned by a beautiful woman and we assume that he is residing at a luxury holiday resort, only to realize that he is actually sitting on a deck chair positioned in an inner-city children’s playground when the camera pans out.  We see PSY rapping with a disco ball spinning above his head, but we quickly realize that he is not in a nightclub, but rather inside a bus surrounded by discoing Korean grandmothers.

GS Tip Six: Gangnam Yoga

One memorable scene in ‘Gangnam Style’ is when PSY leans over and screams at the angling rumps of Korean women partaking in an outdoor yoga class.  Yoga as a women’s exercise trend peaked in Australia and Europe years ago, and these days Yoga has been surpassed in most countries by Pilates, Pole Dancing, Spin, Body Balance, and other exercise fads in Western countries.  In Korea, however, and especially in Gangnam, there has been a recent spike in interest in ‘sexy body line’ yoga for women, and it has now been appropriated as a hobby for upper class women, with luxurious and often exclusive yoga clubs opening up in the Gangnam area with excessive membership fees.  As such, yoga in Korea is not considered so much a ‘hobbie’, but perhaps an extension of the status symbol afforded to Gangnam women by luxury brands and expensive coffees.

GS Tip Seven: Mafia

There is still an underlying assumption in Korea that men with tattooed arms and backs are members of the socially feared 조폭 Korean mafia.  In Gangnam Style, when PSY is sitting in the Korean bathhouse with his supposedly ‘high class Gangnam friends’, it is apparent that these are not in truth ‘high class Gangnam citizens’, but are in fact Korean gangsters, with their broad physiques and heavily tattooed bodies.  For Koreans, it would be apparent how ridiculous this bathhouse scene appears, especially because historically, tattooed men in Korea were refused entry to Korean bathhouses.  We are left to ponder why is a supposedly ‘high-class Gangnam guy’ sweating it out in the sauna with these questionable mafia members?

PSY bathing with Korean gangsters

GS Tip Eight: Dark Glasses

PSY is now recognized globally for his taste in dark sunglasses, but sunglasses are not really as commonly worn in Korea as they are in other countries.  Twenty or thirty years ago in Korea, it would have been very difficult find Koreans walking on the street wearing sunglasses.  In Australia, dark sunglasses have a functional purpose, as the Australian sun can be harsh and can impair vision when driving.  However, in Korea, sunglasses are NOT employed for any functional purpose, but rather are worn as an accessory to exude a new economic confidence by the younger generation (and sometimes by older women on vacation and occasionally the odd old Korean man channelling a 70s disco mogul).  Dark glasses in Korea are often worn by young men inside Korean coffee shops staring blankly at their ipads, hoping that other Koreans are watching them.  In Gangnam, from my personal observations, dark glasses are often worn indoors for the purpose of posing, not unlike characters you might witness on the streets of London or Sydney.  There is no practical function here at all. So when PSY wears his dark glasses inside the sauna or bus it is certainly for the amusement of his Korean audience, because when a Korean guy wears dark glasses in Gangnam there is an assumption that; “This arrogant dude thinks he’s famous”.

GS Tip Nine: Age Difference

PSY as a ‘Korean rapper’ differs in many ways to most renowned American rappers.  While an aging Snoop Dogg grinds against a busty 20 year old in an American hip hop music video, PSY glances longingly from a distance at his Gangnam Style ‘romantic interest’ in a subway station.  PSY’s romantic interest in the music video is the famous 21-year-old Korean idol star known as 현아 ‘Hyuna’, from popular Korean girl group ‘4minute’.  The romantic/dance pairing of Hyuna and PSY would be somewhat unexpected for Koreans, as in Korean culture, large age gaps between romantic couples are generally socially uncommon and frowned upon, and it is highly unlikely that a beautiful idol like Hyuna’s 딱내스타일 ‘personal style’ would equate with a chunky rotund grown man such as PSY. It almost feels as though PSY could be Hyuna’s father or jolly Uncle, making it even more absurd for Koreans to admire their comic dance sequence in the music video.

Everyone from Israel to Brazil can interpret ‘Gangnam
Style’ in their own personal way

Gangnam Style Summation:

Gangnam Style, as a Korean language song, and with its paunchy Uncle-like protagonist, has been an unexpected hit.  This hit is certainly a move in the right direction for Kpop, as it veers away from the overwhelming beauty-plus-beat Korean pop that is usually exported abroad.  While ‘Gangnam Style’ may potentially convey some subtle points on a new and possibly dangerous level of materialism that has transfixed the youth of Korea, the song itself was written for enjoyment, and probably not as a deep social commentary.  If a message was to be construed from the exciting frivolity of ‘Gangnam Style’, it might be that young Koreans are living far beyond their means, seduced by an incomplete promise of fame and fortune in Gangnam.  The symbolism of PSY on the merry-go-round hints at an overwhelmingly materialistic sect of society that will inevitably get stuck going around and around in the futile pursuit of wealth and glamour.

Luigina Webb
Luigina Webb is originally Australian but has studied abroad in Israel, the US, and South Korea, where she now works as an interpreter in a Korean trading company. She has traveled to over thirty countries. Luigina owns a large collection of Korean traditional hats and headdresses sourced from all over Korea. You can check out her blog at http://www.luiginakorea.com/

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