Understanding Gangnam Style

Korea Gangnam Style

Ok, so I got my 1000th email from friends and/or associates across the tech, business and social community in the US, Europe and Japan et al asking “Have you seen this Korean video [Gangnam Style]?“, or with questions about Psy in general.  So, rather than explain again for the Nth time, I thought I’d repost (with permission) a great article from a friend who runs one of the (imho) best Korea law related blogs called, Korea Law Today.

When the video first started making the rounds, we had a few discussions related to why this video went viral on a global scale that arguably no other Korean pop-song ever has. It is certainly the first Kpop related issue I’ve seen instantly hit internet Meme status.  The conclusion? Despite all the initial low-brow, leggy-“enhanced”-Korean-girl group bubblegum pop cynicism I could muster, it seems the main reason people love the Gangnam style video is that it’s just freakin funny and the dance is addictively fun.   Who woulda thought? 🙂

That said, there is actually a lot to say on how “Gangnam Style” relates to Korea, the phenomenon of Korean pop music, entertainment content, and trends in the startup and tech industry in Korea;  from internet, games, video, music, collective consumption, IP rights, etc., etc.    But before going down that road, I’ll leave it Nathan’s article to get you up to speed, so we can start that discussion on the same page.

So without further ado:



Understanding Gangnam Style. After 100 million downloads, maybe I should say something.


Readers of this blog know that I tend to dip into cultural and political issues. Sometimes, lawyers like to pretend that law is an antiseptic field that should remain unsullied by these subjects. I believe, however, that law and culture intersect, and that you cannot understand law unless you understand the cultural context from which it grows. In the words of Kendall Thomas, Director of Columbia Law School’s Center for the Study of Law and Culture, “….law can no longer be adequately analyzed as though it were exogenous to the realm of culture.”

And so, with this justification, please allow me to talk about Gangnam style.

Global hit

It seems as though Korea finally has its global hit with Gangnam Style. Unexpectedly, it was not a crew of surgically enhanced, baby oil covered teenagers dancing in unison that made it big. It was the slightly past his prime, manic dancing sprite Psy that has achieved global stardom. I have received plenty of emails from people asking me about him and his song. Otherwise, I would have have probably not payed it much attention, because I have been quite familiar with Psy’s unlikely success for a long time.

Psy has been Korea’s unofficial national court jester for more than a decade. With his raucous performances, taboo breaking lyrics (which are often misogynistic), and his unorthodox dancing, he has secured a special place in the Korean entertainment firmament. I remember when he first became well known and my Korean friend asked me, “Did you see this guy Psy? He is a crazy Korean American who does these disturbing dance moves?” More than a decade later, he is still at it.

To be clear, Psy is not a Korean American. He only briefly studied in the U.S. He speaks English well, however, and it seems like his sense of humor was strongly influenced by U.S. culture. He has stated his interest in movies like the Austin Powers franchise.

This may be part of the reason his song has done so well overseas. The video features a goofy, self deprecating kind of humor that obviously appeals to foreign audiences. The now famous Gangnam style dance looks a lot to me like the “jump on it” dance from years ago (as demonstrated by Will Smith in the video below). There is definitely some cross-cultural pollination going on here.

To my untrained ears, the song itself also sounds a bit like Korean girl group 2NE1′s (who are for my money the best of their genre) hit I am the Best (내가 제일 잘 나가), which (like Gangnam Style) was also produced by YG Entertainment–see the link below. But I digress.

The great thing about the Gangnam Style song and the video is not that it is all so original. It is fun of course, but it is also satirizing (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the lifestyles of a certain portion of the Korean elite. Psy has passed it off as nothing more than some fun fish out of water imagery, i.e., the gauche guy in the luxurious setting of Gangnam. But there is definitely more to it than that.

What is Gangnam?

Gangnam (which literally means south of the Han River) is Korea’s most affluent neighborhood. It is defined by its streets of tall office buildings, expensive high rise apartments, shopping centers, cafes, and night clubs. It is by no means a bad place. It is where my office is located. Many of the people that I care most about in the world live and work here. To them, it is just another Seoul neighborhood, with families sharing the trials and joys of life together, not fundamentally unlike other parts of Seoul or Korea.

But Gangnam has a dark side. Gangnam is considered the “best” place in Korea (Korean society is often focused on ranking things) and many people want to live here. There are some pretty interesting looking single family homes there that are made of red brick and built like fortresses. Most people in Gangnam, however, want to live in the typical Korean-style sky rise apartments, which (to be honest) are not all that special. They are tall and made of cement with almost no facade, thus looking altogether something like soviet style apartment blocks or U.S. tenements. These apartments go for the equivalent of millions of U.S. dollars. For the price of a small Beverly Hills estate, in Gangnam you can get about a 20 by 30 foot concrete box.

I am sorry to sound so harsh, but anyone who lives here knows that you could purchase a far better home (or equivalent home) much cheaper if you were willing to live somewhere else in Korea. I don’t want to overstate my case. Of course, each of these towering stacks of homes are guarded by security, sometimes surrounded by beautiful gardens, often filled with the best household stylings, and beset with underground parking garages filled with high-performance foreign cars (as shown in the Gangnam Style video). Still, you pay so much to live in Gangnam because you want to be in a giant box filled with like-minded people of a similar class. You are not paying for the quality of the actual living space.

For those who cannot get into the elite apartment complexes, the honor of living in the cacophony of housing below is your next bet. Gangnam is filled with small multipurpose buildings called “officetels.” It is also full of multifamily units that are much less tall and ostentatious than the apartment complexes. Even if you live in one these places in Gangnam, you probably have some cash. Especially if you own one of these buildings or units—Koreans (and even the Korean conglomerates) fight for ownership rights on the glitzy streets of Gangnam.

The kids down below

In the final stratification of Gangnam living are the kids down below. Gangnam is full of wannabe models, actors, and actresses, who come from all over Korea to find their dream. You see, Gangnam is also the home many of Korea’s most well-known talent agencies, like YG Entertainment. For Korea’s beautiful youth, who are financially unable to either pay for or prepare for college in ultra-competitive Korea, the long shot at stardom in Gangnam often seems like a better option than manual labor.

How do these young people make it in Gangnam? They don’t usually and struggle mightily as they try. Sometimes their families support them (holding to the near fantasy that they will become the next Korean sensation). I knew a girl who had won a local beauty pageant and whose mother worked three jobs to keep her in Gangnam until she was 30 in the vain hope that somehow she would become a Korean starlet. Young people like her can cling on for awhile as they go to auditions and photo shoots, but they often must endure less than hospitable living conditions as they try to make it.

The young Gangnam dreamers usually must live in basement (often one room) apartments that are gloomy and moldy–and (by the way) sometimes overflowing with clothing and fashion accessories. They are often taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords and even more unscrupulous bosses and managers (note the tattooed dancing gangster in the video). I am painting with a broad brush here, but please bear with me.

Gangnam nightlife

These kids often become the gruel that feeds Gangnam style. Hundreds of bars and restaurants (so called drinking rooms) line Gangnam’s alleys. These are the true playgrounds of Psy’s video, where the lecherous heirs (an overused trope to be sure, but one that still holds some validity) of the Korean captains of industry come to show off their cars, buy pleasure, and drink until they can’t walk.

The hopeful souls that live in the dark cellars of Gangnam serve them, while longing to live with the freedom and wealth that the second and third generations of Korean business royalty so freely exhibit. They desperately want to be like the children of the towers, and sometimes the children of the towers want to be like them to escape the expectations that come with a Korean family pedigree.

And so, the two tribes awkwardly mix and even mimic each other. One side visits doctors (whose ads saturate Gangnam) trying hard to get the right face. They also spend their nights in the drinking rooms boisterously flaunting their entitlement while supported by their minions of hangers on and yes men. The other side pours their drinks and laughs at their jokes while saving money by skipping meals and eating left overs from the pricy fruit trays that they serve in bars. All too often, these funds are used to buy expensive handbags from secondhand shops and overpriced coffee in Gangnam’s high-end cafes–anything to preserve Gangnam style.

This has led to fortunes being squandered and (sometimes) made in the shadows of Gangnam’s most seedy corners. Through it all, there are certainly some genuine moments of joy. After all, spreading money around can make people feel better for short time. But in my experience, living out fantasies in Gangnam usually just leads to squandered youth, declined credit cards, and hangovers.

As Psy jokes and implies in the lyrics to the song, no matter how refined you pretend to be in the coffee shops during the day, at night you will “let your hair down” when I open my wallet.  In a moment of  lucidity outside of his Gangnam Style persona, Psy recently pointed out, “Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic.”

The prince of Gangnam

This lifestyle is what I believe the Gangnam Style video is satirizing. Psy is playing the middle-aged, spoiled Korean Peter Pan who spends his time consuming all things Gangnam. His paunch look and ridiculous getup add to the satire. He visits Gangnam’s iconic locales (the Trade Center, a luxury bath house, an intersection in Apgujung-dong, and the south river itself) making a mockery of the audacious display of wealth and the endless and exhausting efforts people go through in Gangnam to have a good time. As garbage is blown in his face, he continues his dance undeterred. He even mocks those who dream of Gangnam style nightlife (lesser versions of it exist in pockets throughout Korea) as he joins the wild Karaoke jam of elderly people featured in the classic Korean scenario of a bus ride party gone awry.

His use of the word “oppa,” which means big brother, adds to the Gangnam prince persona he is portraying. Oppa is a term of affection that is often used by lovers or close friends of a similar age. Psy is almost my age. The girl he is dancing with in the video (Hyun-a) is 19. It would very inappropriate to have Hyun-a call Psy oppa under almost any circumstances in Korean culture.

That is, of course, unless you are in a bar living Gangnam style. The young people working in these places call almost everyone who comes through the door oppa or maybe even nuna or onni(big sister, also denoting deference), depending on the circumstances. Notice how Hyun-a emerges from the subway (the transportation of the plebs) in the video to impress the sports car driving Psy. By the way, you can see Hyun-a’s first solo hit below.

Of course, Psy is celebrating as well as satirizing Gangnam style—his twitter handle is @psy_opppa. I am sure that he has tasted the good life in Gangnam as an oppa extraordinaire. But it does not matter. He is charismatic enough, funny enough, and what he is depicting is true enough to make this a powerful cultural moment.

As Korea enjoys Psy’s larger than life image and take prides in his success abroad, Korea also reflects and asks, “Do we want to live in a country where the rich and famous play like clowns while the rest of us serve them and imitate them?”

It is arguably K-pop’s first (although maybe accidental) attempt at a truly subversive message. Indeed, unlike most pop music that rises from the youth as a challenge to social order, K-pop (with some exceptions) has been a product of the social order fed to the youth like cotton candy, or in the case of Hyunah bubble gum. Gangnam Style is something different, and the kids both south and north of the river are eating it up. See below for a look at a massive Psy concert that was held on the edge of Gangnam in Jamshil.

For a full translation of the lyrics, take a look at this video.

By the way, is the picture I paint of Gangnam any different than what is happening in Los Angeles or Manhattan? Probably not. The stakes may be higher here, because Korea has arguably less social mobility. I just felt I should share my thoughts. I certainly know Seoul better than either of those two cities at this point. This is the skin I live in. For more on this subject, you may also want to read this piece in the Atlantic as well—Gangnam Style Dissected, It touches upon some of the same issues.