The Many Meanings of “Gangnam”

By Mariano Turzi

“Gangnam Style,” a rap song by South Korean artist Psy, is the latest global culture fad. It is danced, used as theme song in TV shows, and turned into mock versions for even the U.S. presidential campaign. After going viral on Twitter and Facebook, the song has become the most watched video on YouTube, with over a billion views and counting. This phenomenon has had such an impact that it was re-appropriated by Chinese dissident artist and social activist Ai Weiwei, who made his own version by shooting it while on house arrest. The song is the same, but the artist appears dancing with friends in his home-studio at Caochangdi, on the outskirts of Beijing.

Gangnam Style may seem cartoonish, but the song is deeply intertwined with the Korean political and socio-economic structure. Most viewers don’t realize the music video is a scathing critique of the irrational materialism of a wealthy, capitalistic society. The whole clip mocks the prevailing lifestyle in Seoul´s Gangnam District. This area surrounds wealthy, beautiful, and stylish residents with a concentration of trendy nightclubs, fancy restaurants, and upscale shopping centers.  They own and display every status symbol: driving around in a Mini Cooper and flaunting Louis Vuitton handbags holding their iPads and iPhone, while sipping a Starbucks latte. They are a global, techno-cool class, the nouveaux-riches in emerging countries.

Through his song, Psy has satirized what it means to live “Gangnam style”—being unreservedly materialistic, unconditionally individualistic, and utterly consumerist. The aesthetics are intentionally bizarre and ridiculous, because it is through that descent into absurdity that the artist shows the inanity of Gangnam style.

The parodical narrative of the entire video is a succession of events that underline the futility of pursuing a life of luxury and frivolity, exemplified in the many fruitless efforts to attain the longed for Gangnam status. Psy appears sunbathing on a beach as if he were a playboy, until it turns out that he is in a sandbox surrounded by children. He strolls around with two sexy women, and, instead of having a rain of confetti fall upon them, they receive dirty newspaper pieces. What appears to be an upscale swimming pool is in fact public baths. He is pictured sitting on a fancy chair that turns out to be a toilet. You can see horses throughout the video clip, but Psy only rides the ones on a merry-go-round. There are luxury cars, but he dances in a parking lot. He seeks to be part of the nightlife high society, but he ends up dancing on a bus. Finally, he meets the woman of his dreams in the subway, rather than at an exclusive club.

 An artistic phenomenon is always influenced by the social context. If art is able to portray conflicts within a society or express the fundamental discord of the socio-economic structure, then Gangnam style may be interpreted as a denunciation of the self-interest and consumerist selfishness of the Korean affluent society sector. The unlikely caricature of Psy as a dandy, and the hilarious non sequitur of his search for social status would reveal that material hoarding is a hollow meaning for existence.

Ai Weiwei’s version shows how art is also influenced by the institutional structure. In the same way Psy makes fun of a social class, Ai Weiwei pokes fun at political power. His version is called “Caonima style.” Caonima means “llama” (animal), but in Chinese sounds as a strong insult, a defiance of governmental censorship. The video clip was quickly removed from Chinese websites like Tudou and blocked on YouTube in China.  

 Both in China and Korea, governments deliberately promote national culture with a view to projecting “soft power.” Korea went from persecuting and imprisoning musicians to developing a global K-pop (Korean pop music) production and export business. Meanwhile, China is still struggling to project soft power through its popular media, given its rigid, hierarchical, and self-referencing cultural products. Despite having state sponsorship and outstanding voice quality, Chinese singer Ruhan Jia has not managed to achieve even a modicum of Psy’s international fame..

The political and economic conditions for the creation, emission, and reception of cultural production are different in the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea.  In Korea, cultural space is more competitive and highly commoditized, being subject to market laws, needs, and upheavals. In China, artistic space is developed under the attentive gaze of the Communist Party, as well as under the strict government control of broadcasting channels and contents. The authorities know—even fear—artistic performance can reflect and comment on social reality, which can support or subvert the established order.  Often, avant-garde artistic expressions end up being thwarted or co-opted by the structure of power. For such reason, even identical aesthetic expressions are transformed by the social, economic, and political factors that are imposed upon them. Perhaps this is the reason why criticism against Gangnam style by Psy falls upon the affluent urban class, whereas Ai Weiwei’s Caonima style directs it at government censors.



Mariano Turzi is an International Relations professor at New York University in Buenos Aires and Torcuato Di Tella University.

[Photo Courtesy : – Official page of the Republic of Korea's photostream]

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