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What Does ‘Gangnam Style’ Mean?

The first time my husband heard South Korean pop star PSY’s global hit, “Gangnam Style,” he thought it was a German song. In fact, it took us 15 minutes of arguing for me to figure out which song he was actually talking about. (Him: You know, that German song, ‘Opum Gangenstaad.” Me: No, that’s a South Korean song. Him: “Gangenstaad” is a Korean word? Me: [hand to forehead] No!)

But cultural – and linguistic – differences aside, the song has been a hot-bed for a debate we here in America can relate to. There are some in pop culture who argue the catchy song and flashy video are more than an excuse to “Dress classy, dance cheesy.” Rather, some pop culture consumers believe “Gangnum Style” is political satire at its best, a way for the South Korean father of two to expose the lavish excesses of his country’s one percent.

The Original “Gangnam”

The “Gangnam Style” video shows an elegantly-dressed PSY – accompanied by scores of elegantly-clad dancers – parading through city streets, a paddock, and a children’s playground, often with James Bond-like special effects. (Haven’t seen the video yet? It’s been viewed 623 million times on YouTube as of November 1. If you’re still in the pop culture dark, click this link to watch the video.) The video itself looks like a parody of a 1990s-era rap video. Nothing about the video gives you reason to take it seriously.

Yet, the word “Gangnam” actually comes from a posh neighborhood in the South Korean capital of Seoul, which centers around a street named Garosu-Gil. You can think of Garosu-Gil as the South Korean version of Times Square, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive all in one. Still think the excesses mocked in this video are a mere coincidence? As my sixth grade algebra teacher was fond of saying, possible, but not probable.

Is This Satire? Or An Attack On The One Percent?

In a global economy where the so-called “one percent” has been much-maligned, it’s easy to cast off “Gangnam Style” as a frivolous video, meant for fun and nothing else. In fact, that’s what PSY himself said in a recent BBC interview.

But not everyone is convinced. In an August article for The Atlantic, Max Fisher makes the case that “Gangnam Style” was concocted to expose the over-the-top lifestyle of South Korea’s mega-rich; the people we here in the United States may call the one percent.

With PSY keeping mum on the issue, it’s tough to figure out what his true intent was when crafting this song, but what do you think?

Is Gangnam Style political satire at its best – or just a fun music video?

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