If you have access to the Internet — and you sort of have to in order to read this — then chances are good that you’ve seen the over-the-top music video for South Korean pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which has racked up more than 250 million views on YouTube. You may have watched some of the many parodies, like this video combining the song with clips from the film Downfall featuring an apoplectic Adolf Hitler. You may have even tried to teach yourself Psy’s “Gangnam Style” horse dance.
The song is catchy enough, and the video ridiculous enough, that you may not have realized that “Gangnam Style” mixes its silliness with social satire. Gangnam, you see, is Seoul’s richest and flashiest neighborhood, what one commenter describes as the Korean equivalent of “Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Beverly Hills, Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Miami Beach all rolled into one.” The video depicts Psy’s comically inept attempts to live large in Gangnam style, offering a satirical take on South Korea’s burgeoning culture of consumer excess.
The video starts off with Psy luxuriating on a sunny beach, being fanned by a beautiful woman — at least until the camera pulls out to reveal that he’s actually on a children’s playground and the woman is a figment of his imagination.
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Despite his flashy clothes and his preening and strutting, Psy’s Gangnam-style life is distinctly unglamorous: he sweats in a sauna alongside low-ranking gangsters, goes for a swim in a public bathhouse and joins a couple of elderly pensioners playing a board game on a bench underneath a highway overpass. Instead of dancing in an exclusive club, Psy boogies in the aisle of a tourist bus. (Thanks to the blog My Dear Korea for pointing out the cultural significance of various scenes in the video.)
Of course, Psy’s character isn’t the only wannabe Gangnamite in South Korea. As Max Fischer points out in his analysis of the video on TheAtlantic.com, plenty of Koreans are spending like they’re rich:
In 2010, the average household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent). There are nearly five credit cards for every adult. South Koreans have been living on credit since the mid-1990s, first because their country’s amazing growth made borrowing seem safe, and then in the late 1990s when the government encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian financial crisis.
As satire goes, “Gangnam Style” is fairly gentle, more silly than stinging — perhaps because Psy himself grew up a rich kid in Gangnam.
But in some ways the gentleness — and the relentless cheerfulness — of the video may in the end make it even more of a challenge to the consumer society it satirizes. Psy’s character may be more than a little ridiculous in his aspirations and affectations, but he’s not unhappy. He’s as happy in the children’s playground as he would have been on a beach at an exclusive resort, and he meets the girl of his dreams while riding the subway.
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Perhaps the message of the video isn’t so much that Gangnam-style life is hollow and meaningless but that living large is more about attitude than money. In a society obsessed with money and status and consumer excess, it’s a reminder that the best things in life are free — or at least don’t require maxing out credit cards.