Deconstructing Gangnam Style

gangnam strut

For a while, we couldn’t escape “Gangnam Style.”  The South Korean tune debuted in July and was still going strong for months afterward.  It’s now crowned as the most-viewed video on YouTube, hitting the billion mark.  Bill O’Reilly was confused and cantankerousGlee even covered the song.  That’s got to be a sign of success, right?  But just what is “Gangnam Style” about?

If you want a really in-depth look at the lyrics of the song and what they mean, both The Atlantic and Global Voices Online ran interesting articles on the topic over the summer.  But I have some of my own contributions to make, ones that can perhaps decipher why the song continues to be so popular.  If it was just a silly thing to look at, why would we still be talking about it so much later?

Most Americans singing along with the opening and choral lines “Oppa Gangnam Style” don’t really know what they’re saying.  Translating just two of those words, though, gives a lot of insight into the song as a whole.  “Oppa” is the a term a younger woman uses for an older man who’s still her peer.  Its most straightforward use is familial, but it’s often used in a romantic capacity, meaning “sweetie.”  Yes, it’s confusing, but go here for a fantastic, in-depth explanation of the varied meanings/implications of the word.

For our purposes, if a guy lets a girl call him “Oppa,” or encourages her to do so, it implies that he’s willing to receive her romantic interest.  It’s a sugary endearment that is often exaggerated to be cutesy.  This clip from The King 2 Hearts illustrates (in a rather humorous meta way) its uses and perceptions:

Gangnam itself is an ultra-exclusive area of Seoul, one that’s been at the forefront of the country’s culture for years.  It’s also, as the Atlantic article points out, heavily populated with a particular kind of wealth.  A lot of the people living in Gangnam didn’t make their money themselves, they’re living off of family money and trust funds.  Gangam is the domain of the second-generation chaebol.

Chaebol is a Korean term referring to the head of a mega-corporation.  Second-generation chaebols are rampant in Korean dramas; if a drama is a romance, there’s a 95% or higher chance that the leading man will be a second-generation chaebol.  He’s a high school student waiting to inherit his company, or a 20- or 30-something working in or running the company, but still answering to a family elder as chair of the board.

If the drama stars such a man, his ritzy apartment is almost definitely located in Gangnam.  In some cases  — Goo Jin Pyo from Boys Over Flowers or Kim Joo Won from Secret Garden — these men don’t live in Gangnam, but that’s because their wealth is so fabulous that it can’t be contained within strict city limits, instead needing acres of country estate over which to spread.

boys over flowers car

This looks like it could be an image from “Gangnam,” but it’s from popular 2009 kdrama Boys Over Flowers. The four titular wealthy young chaebols in the show have matching sports cars in which they speed around all over town.

In such cases the lead character’s wealth is relevant to the plot, but many times there’s just no reason for the lead to be Gangnam, and yet he is.  As the lovely ladies of Dramabeans pointed out in a podcast (recorded two years ago, it’s worth noting, and thus long before “Gangnam Style”), the frustrating thing about the Gangnam-obsession is just how narrow it is.  A rough equivalent, they say, would be if most of our primetime network television focused on characters living not just in New York or Manhattan, but on Fifth Avenue.

Thus we have Psy’s character: he’s parodying a societal ideal of relationships and lifestyle that’s reinforced by the media.  Even better, it’s a personal send-up: Psy more or less shares a back story with many of the kdrama leading men.  He was born in Gangnam, and his father runs a giant company he was groomed to take over.  He was even sent to the U.S. to go to business school (just like many kdrama male leads), but once there he lost interest, dropped out, and spent his tuition money on music equipment instead.

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