Matson on Music
'Gangnam Style': What does it mean?
The worldwide dance smash "Gangnam Style" by Korean rapper PSY came to prominence in America during the Olympics, and is popular for a reason — it's zeitgeisty rave-pop with a buffoon at its center doing hilarious choreography, acting stupid and smart at the same time, like someone you totally want to hang out with. He should tour with Nicki Minaj. I also love the song and especially the video because a) PSY is a completely average looking pop star in a Korean society where cosmetic surgery is normalized to a weird degree, b) legitimately funny in an international field which often translates hip-hop dreadfully seriously (see: Europe), and c) a perhaps groundbreaking satirist by Korean standards. Something about his giant inflatable baby in a diaper smoking a cigarette — which hangs in the concert-video for his song "It's Art" — tells me this guy is distantly descended from the Beastie Boys.
But there is some miscommunication. English speakers and YouTube commenters think "Gangnam Style" is about condoms. It is not. The title namechecks the similarly pronounced Gangnam, the businessy district in the middle of Seoul, which has a ribbon of wealth and taste running through it. I was there a little while ago on vacation. And while I am no expert on Korean things (besides eating the food), I have something to offer.
For those not knowing, Gangnam has a lot of style, almost all of it condensed into a street called Garosu-Gil, a mini Rodeo Drive of international clothing stores and Korean boutiques. Some of the clothes you can find elsewhere, but lots you cannot. Limited run, in-house designs by local artisans create an exclusive air. There is virtually no tourist element, except for Koreans who go there as (I gather) tourists in their own city, fancy for the day. Everywhere else in Seoul on the streets all you see is Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia. In Gangnam on Garosu-Gil it's Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar. Beautiful people drink coffee in sidewalk cafes crossing their legs like it's an art, adjusting double windsor knots, checking large-screen Samsung phones. There are impromptu fashion shoots in the winding backstreets and alleys, a model on a stoop, a photographer, a person with a clipboard.
PSY says in this ABC news video that the character he plays in "Gangnam Style" claims this kind of cool, but the joke is how uncool and unselfsoncious he really is. In a reverse way to me he's saying "my cool is in my heart." I'm taking it and PSY in general as a funny, sorta righteous stab at Korean materialism and youth-fetish culture.