The Viral Phenomenon

The Atlantic’s Max Fisher has an insightful article on Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation. Somehow, Psy (Park Jaesang), an unlikely Korean singer, has succeeded where the K-Pop entertainment-industrial-complex and its canned superstars have failed so many times before: making it in America. The track “Gangnam Style” went viral, earning 49 million hits on YouTube since its mid-July release. American rapper T-Pain was retweeted 2,400 times when he wrote “Words cannot even describe how amazing this video is.” Pop stars expressed admiration. Billboard extolled his commercial viability, and the Wall Street Journal posted it as one of “5 Must-See” response videos. A CNN anchor said: “I have to admit I’ve watched it about 15 times. Of course, no one here in the U.S. has any idea what Psy is rapping about.”

American teens React to the video:

The Economics

So what is it about? Max Fisher discussed the video with Adrian Hong, a Korean-American consultant and oft-quoted observer of Korean issues, and summarizes his findings by writing that Park’s “Gangnam Style” video lampoons the self-importance and ostentatious wealth displayed by the residents and frequenters of Seoul’s posh Gangnam (Gang River South) disctrict , with Psy playing a clownish caricature of a Gangnam man. He writes:

The video is rich with subtle references that, along with the song itself, suggest a subtext with a surprisingly subversive message about class and wealth in contemporary South Korean society. That message would be awfully mild by American standards — this is no “Born in the U.S.A.” — but South Korea is a very different place, and it’s a big deal that even this gentle social satire is breaking records on Korean pop charts long dominated by cotton candy.

One of the first things Hong pointed to in explaining the video’s subtext was, believe it or not, South Korea’s sky-high credit card debt rate. In 2010, the average household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent). There are nearly five credit cards for every adult. South Koreans have been living on credit since the mid-1990s, first because their country’s amazing growth made borrowing seem safe, and then in the late 1990s when the government encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian financial crisis. The emphasis on heavy spending, coupled with the country’s truly astounding, two-generation growth from agrarian poverty to economic powerhouse, have engendered the country with an emphasis on hard work and on aspirationalism, as well as the materialism that can sometimes follow.

Gangnam, Hong said, is a symbol of that aspect of South Korean culture. The neighborhood is the home of some of South Korea’s biggest brands, as well as $84 billion of its wealth, as of 2010. That’s seven percent of the entire country’s GDP in an area of just 15 square miles. A place of the most conspicuous consumption, you might call it the embodiment of South Korea’s one percent. “The neighborhood in Gangnam is not just a nice town or nice neighborhood. The kids that he’s talking about are not Silicon Valley self-made millionaires. They’re overwhelmingly trust-fund babies and princelings,” he explained.

Parodying the Twisted Dream of Upward Mobility

See the subtitles By Jea Kim:

The article quotes U.S.-based Korean blogger Jea Kim who wrote at her site, My Dear Korea:

“In Korea, there’s a joke poking fun at women who eat 2,000-won (about $2) ramen for lunch and then spend 6,000 won on Starbucks coffee.” They’re called Doenjangnyeo, or “soybean paste women” for their propensity to crimp on essentials so they can over-spend on conspicuous luxuries, of which coffee is, believe it or not, one of the most common. “The number of coffee shops has gone up tremendously, particularly in Gangnam,” Hong said. “Coffee shops have become the place where people go to be seen and spend ridiculous amounts of money.”

Psy hits all the symbols of Gangnam opulence, but each turns out to be something much more modest, as if suggesting that Gangnam-style wealth is not as fabulous as it might seem. We think he’s at a beach in the opening shot, but it turns out to be a sandy playground. He visits a sauna not with big-shot businessmen but with mobsters, Kim points out, and dances not in a nightclub but on a bus of middle-aged tourists. He meets his love interest in the subway. Kim thinks that Psy’s strut though a parking garage, two models at his side as trash and snow fly at them, is meant as a nod to the common rap-video trope of the star walking down a red carpet covered in confetti. “I think he’s pointing out the ridiculousness of the materialism,” Hong said.

Cause for Reflection?

The biting socioeconomic commentary in the song by Park Jaesang (Psy) may give cause for reflection about some of the debilitating socioeconomic issues America faces. Take, for instance, the “Joe the Plumber syndrome” where aspiring upward climbers like small businessmen are deluded by the rightwing propaganda into thinking they have more in common with the 1% (so-called “job creators”) than the poorest among us, and are convinced to support policies that are actually behind the growing wealth disparity. Like the Korean Gangnam Dream, the American Dream has today become an economic nightmare of growing wealth disparity, downward mobility and economic illiteracy.

In conclusion, if there’s some hope that Koreans are starting to get the message, there’s hope for America.