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Gangnam Style: What the PSY Song Means and Why it Went Viral

Whether you like it or not, unless you’ve been living under a WiFi-deprived rock for the last three months, the Korean sensation that is PSY (Park Jae Sang, 34) has infiltrated your eardrums and eyeballs, through his record-breaking, viral music video, “Gangnam Style.” 

The Korean-raised, American-university-educated singer has recently been signed to Schoolboy Records, the label of Justin Bieber's manager Scooter Brown. At 767+ million views on YouTube since July 15, he has surpassed viral legends such as Rebecca Black and Lady Gaga in his international hit count, and remains the #1 downloaded song on iTunes. We know the song is catchy and the video is colorful and amusing, but is that all it takes to become a global sensation in a matter of weeks? Those things are certainly important. But why is this seemingly passing-trend of a video taking so long to pass? 

Let’s start with the lyrical content. Non-Korean speakers and listeners may not realize this, but beyond the horseback-riding inspired dance moves and bright blue tuxedos, there are some thought-provoking words behind the musical funny-man and his attractive backup dancers. PSY makes subtle yet probing jabs at capitalistic, class-concerned Seoulites who will spend more money on a fancy cup of Starbucks coffee than an inexpensive, instant-noodle dinner. Max Fisher points this out in his detailed assessment of the video in The Atlantic. 

PSY’s video caricature of a typical “Gangnam guy” (oppa is the Korean word for older brother, which is used colloquially as an affectionate term for male friends) likes “a classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee.” This line may be confusingly simple to American or European audiences for whom coffee drinking is an ingrained, routine part of life. A girl who drinks coffee? That could include my grandmother or agitated boss. Not so in Korea, where expensive chain cafes (whose parent companies tend are often times international conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai) are a marker of wealth, a westernized lifestyle, and an ability to spend six dollars on a cup of coffee. The Gangnam guy in PSY’s video likes a girl with money, or at least one who likes to pretend she does. 

But where the social commentary really shines through is in the satirical depictions of the “Gangnam guy,” who dresses in a funny suit but never smiles, gawks at women in an outdoor yoga class, and hangs out in a sauna with tattooed gangsters (while wearing oversized sunglasses). As he attempts to dance his way down garbage-strewn streets with gorgeous women or observes old men playing baduk (a traditional Korean boardgame), he’s always dressed well, taking himself a little too seriously. He’s making a mockery of the cold, chiseled look that is typically associated with Gangnam guys, from magazine models to mainstream K-Pop artists. This satirical depiction of wealthy young men is universally humorous, the same way Austin Powers and Mr. Bean straddle language barriers and cultural confines. 

Another key to the success of this catchy video has been the catchy dance: funny to watch and even funnier to attempt on the dance floor or in front of a mirror (or on The Ellen Show if you are Britney Spears). In a CNN.com interview, PSY — short for “Psycho” — explains the derivation of the horseback riding impersonation, which is easily picked up and has helped this song become a must-hear on any night involving a dance floor and speakers. “Let’s ride a horse” is a Korean expression that refers to having a drink and letting loose, hence the dance and the scenes in a Westernized horse stable (in my opinion yet another reference to an affluent attempt at a Western lifestyle). 

The Korean-born pop star has risen to fame in a matter of months, spoken at Oxford University, danced with MC Hammer, and won a prestigious American Music Award. He’s got a talent for writing satirical, subtext-infused lyrics, inventing funny dance moves, and ideating visually appealing music videos. Who cares if you can’t understand what PSY is singing about — can you honestly say that you keep up with every rhyming lyric in a Dr. Dre or Jay-Z song? I’m excited for more creativity, innovation, and catchiness from PSY! 

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