It’s bad form to brag, but this is too good not to brag about: Apparently, the South Korean pop song “Gangnam Style” has crossed over to being a huge hit in the US. “Gangnam” refers to a neighborhood in Seoul–one I’ve been to. When I get back to the US in 6 months, I’ll have stories to tell, but for now, here’s the video and some explanation of it:
“Korea has not had a long history of nuanced satire,” Adrian Hong, a Korean-American consultant whose wide travels make him an oft-quoted observer of Korean issues, said of South Korea’s pop culture. “In fact, when you asked me about the satire element, I was super skeptical. I don’t expect much from K-Pop to begin with, so the first 50 times I heard this, I was just like, ‘Allright, whatever.’ I sat down to look at it and thought, ‘Actually, there’s some nuance here.’”
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.
This skewering of the Gangnam life can be easy to miss for non-Korean. Psy boasts that he’s a real man who drinks a whole cup of coffee in one gulp, for example, insisting he wants a women who drinks coffee. “I think some of you may be wondering why he’s making such a big deal out of coffee, but it’s not your ordinary coffee,” U.S.-based Korean blogger Jea Kim wrote at her site, My Dear Korea. (Her English-subtitled translation of the video is at right.) “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.”
One thing I’d add is that this song is absolutely everywhere in Korea right now. Sometimes it feels like the only song anyone’s playing. That’s a huge deal, given that for the most part K-pop (Korean pop music) is even more corporate-controlled and homogenized than in the US. For a satirist who’s ten years older than all the other successful musicians here to have such a big hit has to be a cultural milestone analogous to if not bigger than The Daily Show becoming one of the most watched news shows in the US.
ETA: I’m curious, how many of you in the US (or anywhere not Korea) have heard this song? Of those, how many had heard about the subtler aspects of the satire (whether through the Atlantic article or somewhere else), and how many just thought it was a goofy song and video?