Park Jae-Sang, better known as PSY, has become an overnight global sensation with his unusual but side-achingly funny “Gangnam Style” music video.
In the music video, he dances his famous dance routine in horse stables, playgrounds, elevators, carousels, car parks and even a toilet. And people love it.
In late September, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” was awarded a Guinness World Record for the most liked video on YouTube. At the time of going to press, the music video had garnered over 3,5 million likes and had topped the iTunes charts in 31 countries, including the United States and Britain.
The success of PSY’s song is ironic, says Hollywood music producer Tim Hugh. “Most people do not understand the language, yet people are crazy about it.”
So what does “Gangnam Style” actually mean?
Gangnam, Korean for “south of the river”, is one of the richest neighbourhoods in Seoul, South Korea. Families that own and manage companies like Hyundai and Samsung live in the neighbourhood. Gangnam has been compared to Beverly Hills and Miami Beach, but PSY rejects these comparisons in an interview with Q magazine, explaining that “Gangnam is like a combination of all the Western rich neighbourhoods, with a distinct lifestyle incomparable with any other.”
Gangnam is a place where people are rich, girls are pretty and everything is supposed to be cool. PSY – the exact opposite of cool in his music video – struggles to keep up with the lavish Gangnam lifestyle, and in his persistence to be confidently uncool (with style) he becomes the dorky guy everybody can’t help but love.
Beneath the humorous surface of PSY’s song, however, lies a sharp social critique of the lifestyles of the very rich in Gangnam. As the oldest son of a very rich family in South Korea, PSY grew up in Gangnam. He experienced it from within, and his comical portrayal of his old neighbourhood is an obvious satirical comment.
“When people speak of Gangnam, it’s usually not addressed in a respectful tone, but sarcastically,” says South Korean professor in analytical advertising Chang Dae Ham. PSY’s internet domination could be compared to one of South Africa’s own local bands, Die Antwoord. To compare their success is a bit like comparing a Boeing 747 to a tiny bicycle, but their satirical portrayals of South Africa’s zef style and South Korea’s Gangnam style are similar. Die Antwoord mocks the lives of zef South Africans who would usually be found in places like Brakpan and in the suburbs of Vereeniging. PSY does the same but targets the extremely rich in Seoul – mocking the people in Gangnam who drive around at night in their expensive cars while they make use of public transport during the day when none of their rich friends are looking.
Not everybody believes that “Gangnam Style” is a satirical song. Justin Botha, a first-year medical student, says, “I don’t even know where South Korea is on a map, so there is no way of knowing what the real message is. I just enjoy it.” This seems to be the opinion of many students. Roslynn Allan, a third-year food science student, contributes: “I don’t think it is satirical. I don’t know what the lyrics mean, but it sounds funny and we all need something humorous this time of the year.”
Here at Tuks, students are also enjoying the “Gangnam Style” song. Salila Zulu, a second-year BCom Accounting student, shares that “Gangnam Style” is the most played song on her iPod right now. “I play it loud and when I am alone in my room I dance the horse dance. My friends think I am crazy and my neighbours hate me.” Freek Oosthuizen, a BSc (Hons) Microbiology student, is less excited. “It was cool in the beginning, but it is starting to get irritating because everybody plays it really loud all the time.” Perhaps Zulu and Oosthuizen are neighbours.
TuksFM and many university reses have gotten in on the action too, recording their own versions of the hit song. While the results vary from hilarious to simply embarrassing, what is clear is that Tuks, like the rest of the world, has caught Gangnam style fever.
The Original “Gangnam Style” music video
Kiaat’s “Gangnam Style” video
Illustration: Simon-Kai Garvie