With his dark glasses, flashy suits and perpetual scowl, Park Jae-Sang looks less like a pop star than an extra in a Hong Kong gangster flick. But under the nom de rap Psy, the Korean singer has become the summer’s international hit, thanks to an insane – and insanely catchy – music video called Gangnam Style. The clip is No. 2 on the YouTube music charts, behind only Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe; as of Friday, it had been viewed more than 81 million times.
Not bad for Korean pop (or K-pop), sung in Korean and satirizing a social trend unknown to non-Koreans.
Gangnam is a trendy district in southern Seoul which has generated a lifestyle the Korean-American blogger Jae Kim describes as “nothing but materialistic.” To live “Gangnam style” is to project the right image regardless of circumstances, an aesthetic that Psy spoofs relentlessly. For instance, in the opening shot, we see him lounging in a beach chair, looking like a playboy on the Riviera. But as the camera dollies back, we realize he’s just sitting in a playground sandbox.
Although Psy’s satire is, as the Atlantic’s Max Fisher observed, “awfully mild by American standards,” it does address the elephant in the room for Korean society: aspirational debt. Household credit-card debt in Korea averages 155 per cent of disposable income, surpassing the 138-per-cent peak Americans racked up before the recession. The humour in Gangnam Style stems from the absurdity of Psy trying to look rich and stylish.
What hooks non-Korean viewers? The Eurobeat and an English refrain (“Hey, sexy lady!”) helps. Then there’s Psy himself. Regardless of lyrics, it’s hard not love a guy who can keep a straight face while doing a dance that looks like MC Hammer riding a horse.