This is why in the video he so purposefully but ridiculously dressed in an ostentatious sky-blue tuxedo, boasting all different kinds of swag in the non-luxurious places like a playground, a toilet, and a subway car, instead of a Bentley or a hip nightclub. In both the lyrics and the video, PSY plays a non-Gangnam douchebag hitting on a girl (“hey, sexy lady”) by bragging he’s “Gangnam-style.” If you haven’t noticed this from the omnipresent music video (I’m talking to both Korean and non-Korean audiences), it probably has to do with one of the following possible reasons: you only see a funny, fat, self-mocking Asian guy doing the horse dance; you see a bunch of Koreans/Asians doing the horse dance; you don’t get PSY’s inside joke about “Gangnam”; you don’t take pop culture seriously; or the video was just too brilliantly entertaining to take you beyond itself.
Although PSY didn’t intend to satirize Gangnam directly, we may still say that the song is satirical in that it indirectly comments on the increasing inequality of wealth in Korean society. And the real irony is in the fact that PSY himself (whose real name is Park Jae-sang) was born and grew up in a well-off family in Gangnam and that his image is far removed from the beauty or nobility associated with “Gangnam” in Korean popular culture.
Before “Gangnam Style” became a worldwide hit (for which PSY won an award from Korea’s Ministry of Culture & Tourism), the 35-year-old rapper/songwriter/producer/entertainer was once ousted by Korean media for trying to avoid the country’s mandatory military duty and for a marijuana bust. He is also known for writing naughty lyrics, many of which have been banned in Korea, and for performing outrageous acts on stage, such as drinking soju in between songs, parodying female pop stars’ sexy performances, and smashing a model of a U.S. tank. One of the characteristics of his stage persona is the tacky, flashy style of outfits, which shows that he is not afraid to make fun of himself as well as others. While he has staged far more subversive performances and written far more provocative songs for the Korean public, in the same interview with CNN he said that with “Gangnam Style,” he “just wanted to make something that was purely comedic — something that could make people laugh like crazy, even in the midst of all this global economic slowdown.”
The seemingly uncool, slightly obese, but stylish and sarcastic Gangnam star could have been a perfect person to not only dilute the hyperreal illusions about “Gangnam” but also to humorize (if not criticize) the idolization of the rich and famous that is pervasive in pop culture in capitalist societies. Ironically enough, though, the global popularity of PSY’s song has been bringing more money (non-Gangnamers’ money) to the Gangnam district. According to an online reservation company in Korea, restaurant reservation rates in Gangnam have double compared to those of Gangbuk’s in the past few months. And one of Gangnam’s department stores reported an increase of 80% in sales to tourists, an increase credited to PSY’s overseas success. Last October, in the midst of the “Gangnam Style” sensation, the Gangnam-gu borough inaugurated the “Tourism Promotion Department,” designated to establish Gangnam as the center of the already increasing “Korean Wave”-related tourism. Sooner or later we will see what the popularization of “Gangnam” will do to the upscale neighborhoods.
Neither PSY’s joke in the song nor the song’s impact has been insignificant. The whole “Gangnam Style” sensation has instead been a serious and loud reminder that we live in such a deeply class-conscious and image-conscious world, where looking silly and “different” can actually bring you global recognition, fame and money.