Gangnam Style – Killer Baseline or Social Commentary

11 Sep 2012|DK Badenhorst

My original reaction to the K-pop hit Gangnam Style was similar to the millions that littered the web soon after its release- wildly entertaining, but distinctly strange.

I could make out some big city references, a stable full of horses, lots of Koreans dancing and singing, the ‘good life’ and a plenty of unrecognizable locations. But it made little sense to me. And if you think about it, it shouldn’t. The hyper-connected nature of today means I’m constantly exposed to publications and media that weren’t made for me – and this clearly wasn’t made for me.

But that doesn’t mean I’m unable to understand it.  I knew there was a way to get to the bottom of its mad success- one, because understanding culture is what we do and two, frankly, over 130 million YouTube hits to date simply can’t all be based on “wtf!”.

Watch the Gangnam Style video

It’s a bit like a computer visiting a completely foreign website. Initially it can’t make sense of what it finds, but with the proper software, it can decode the ones and zeroes and turn the noise into meaning. The question is, what software do we need to make sense of this infectiously catchy Korean noise?  Cultural Insight to the rescue.  Here goes.

South Korea is one of the world’s four Asian Tigers. These economies are known for high growth rates since the 1960’s, excelling in areas like information technology, manufacturing and finance. The result is that these economies now create enormous amounts of wealth.  And this rising tide has managed to lift a whole lot of ships.The rapid growth has created stacks of ‘new money’ and in South Korea there is no better example of these shiny new shoes than the ultra-chic area of Gangnam in Seoul.

Gangnam-gu, one of the 25 districts that comprise Seoul, is where the money is.  One of the most affluent areas in the whole country, Gangnam is home to celebrities, the heart of the entertainment industry, and a host of international corporations.  The trendy neighborhood often boasts real estate prices treble those in surrounding districts.

Rapid increases in personal wealth are often materialized in lavish and conspicuous consumption. Gangnam is not alone in this, however.  Even where I live here in Sandton Johannesburg (the wealthiest square mile in Africa), your worth is worn on your sleeve.  ‘Bling’ and ‘swag’ (and the status they imply) are definitely for sale.  And while in Gangnam what passes for bling might be designer coffee and the latest smartphone (new models from Samsung and competitors roll out almost monthly!), the goal is the same.

‘New money’ lifestyles, conspicuous spending and all, often fall under heavy criticism. As it seems to spend for the sake of spending, the line goes that they lack a real understanding of what wealth means and makes a mockery of those who cannot live these lives.  In the west, this would be fertile ground for social commentary. In South Korea however, this just isn’t done. As the saying goes, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.  South Korea is in many ways quite progressive amongst its Asian cohort, especially in entertainment (take for example its explosion onto the international film scene in the last decade).

However, outright social criticism is still far from the big screen and nowhere near the powder puff and neon smiles of K-pop.

That’s why Park Jae-Sang’s (better known as Psy) Gangnam Style is so incredible. Educated in the US, Psy seems to see the virtues in criticism, but true to his South Korean culture he offers it up in palatable doses. Psy depicts a seemingly opulent lifestyle, but pans out or changes the each shot to reveal the lackluster reality underneath. A club turns out to be a tourist bus, the beach is a children’s play park and the confetti covered runway walk is little more than a strut down a filthy warehouse – confetti replaced by garbage.

At a glance it seems funny, but when you take a second look it amounts to a sly commentary on middle-class South Korean attitudes toward consumption.

Gangnam Style is not just a stewed mix of random video footage- instead it’s a criticism of the superficiality of Seoul’s (more specifically Gangnam’s) consumerist lifestyle. His representation is accurate enough to make the connection but caricaturized enough to be accepted as an entertaining music video that can comfortably live in critically-sensitive South Korea.

With a global culture of protest, an increasing disdain for the ‘haves’ and suspicions surrounding the sustainability of quick money, we’re surprised that such consumer-critical commentary, however subtle, hasn’t made it to South Korean pop culture already.  Psy manages to tap into a truth that stretches beyond the traditional local boundaries of K-pop to make Gangnam Style a global hit.

Gangnam Style marks a new page for K-pop.  This phenom of a song is rivaling LG and Samsung for South Korea’s most successful export.  While we have no doubt that the song itself will prove ultimately fad-ish, what it has to say about emerging attitudes in South Korean culture towards conspicuous consumption are harder to so dismiss.  Brands working in South Korea and in similar Asian markets should sit up and take notice.  Sit up, do a horse-riding dance to that contagious bass line, but definitely, take notice.


DK Badenhorst is a cultural insighter in Added Value’s Johanessburg office. He wrote this article in collaboration with UK Cultural Insighter, Ian LaPoint. 

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