David Frum

09.25.12

Biting Satire, Gangnam Style

Video screenshot

I may be the last one on the planet, but at the insistence of my son who was horrified by my ignorance, I finally watched the Gangnam Style video.

Immediately afterward, I asked the question all Americans are asking: what the hell was that about?

Thanks to the Atlantic Monthly, now I know.

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.

(If you're wondering about the bizarre episodes in the elevator and with the red sports car, as I was, it turns out that those are probably just excuses for a couple of cameos by TV personalities, which is apparently common in South Korean music videos.)

None of this commentary is particularly overt, which is actually what could make "Gangnam Style" so subversive. Social commentary is just not really done in mainstream Korean pop music, Hong explained. "The most they'll do is poke fun at themselves a little bit. It's really been limited." But Psy "is really mainstreaming it, and he's doing it in a way that maybe not everybody quite realizes."

Ah. Got it.