PSY’s “Gangnam Style” And “Gangnam Oppa” In “Architecture 101” (1)

By Guest Contributor Jea Kim (aka Onsemiro), cross-posted from My Dear Korea

  1. What the Heck Is Gangnam Style?

PSY finally set the world on fire with a song, Gangnam Seutail (강남스타일, “Gangnam Style”), written and performed by himself. The song is the title track of his sixth studio album, Yukgap (육갑), which can be interpreted two ways: (i) the word originally  means “the sexagenary cycle;” but (ii) it is mostly used in a derogatory way as meaning “a total retard.”  However, PSY chose this word to express his hope that his sixth (육(六), “six”) album would be the best (갑(甲), “best”). He made a wish and his wish came true.  In fact, the song turned out to be a greater success than he had hoped; it became an instant YouTube, and iTunes hit upon its release and also has immediately become a worldwide phenom.  And people are beginning to wonder what the heck is “Gangnam style.”

Generally speaking, “Gangnam” is the south of the Han River in Seoul while “Gangbuk” is the north of the river, in which gang means “river” (that is, the Han River); nam is “south,” and buk is north.  More specifically, though, it refers to the areas that include Gangnam-gu and Seocho-gu districts as seen below.  (Note that Songpa-gu can be considered to be part of Gangnam in a broader sense.)

Map of Seoul (2012)

Gangbuk has been the heart of Seoul in every way until lately when Gangnam started being developed in the 70’s.  The most time-honored, cherished, and traditional areas in Gangbuk include Jung-gu and Jongno-gu. Jung-gu (중구(中區), “central district”), as its name suggests, is located in the “center” of present-day Seoul while Jongno-gu is located in the center of old Seoul–Jongno-gu or Jongno district was named after its main street, Jongno (종로구(鍾路區),”Bell Street”). Jongno-gu has been the heart of Seoul for about 600 years as it has been the abode of kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty and of the presidents of South Korea.  Both Jongno-gu and Jung-gu not only boast a valuable historical and cultural heritage that is reflected in the numerous palaces, museums, monuments, and other tourist attractions but have served as leading economic and political centers of South Korea.  On the other hand, as seen in the following 1912 map of Seoul, present-day Gangnam was not even part of the city.

Map of Seoul (1912)

Gangnam was an undeveloped rural area, especially Korean cabbage and Korean pear fields, and called Youngdong which means “the east of Youngdeungpo,” in the 70s, about 40 years ago.  However, the area was designated for commercial and residential development on an unprecedented scale as old Seoul was growing at the speed of light in the 60s, and with the opening of the Hannam Bridge in 1969 and the opening of the Gyeongbu Expressway in 1970, which starts from its northern end in Seocho-dong in Gangnam and continues south to Busan.

(top) High-rise apartment complexes just constructed by Hyundai, right next to Korean pear fields in Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu, in the 70’s; (bottom) the night view of present-day Apgujeong-dong.
(top) Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-Gu in the ’70s; (bottom) the night view of present-day Apgujeong-dong.
(top) Jamwon-dong, Seocho-gu, in the 80s; (bottom) present-day Jamwon-dong.
(top) The surrounding landscape of Gyeongbu Expressway Station in Seochodong in the 80s; (bottom) present-day Gyeongbu Expressway Station.
(top) The Hannam Bridge under construction in 1969;
(bottom) the surrounding landscape of the present-day Hannam Bridge.
(left) The construction site of Youngdong new town photographed in 1970; (right) present-day Gangnam (formerly known as Youngdong).

The development process of Gangnam kicked into high gear in the 80’s and caused such problems as land-value bubbles and real-estate speculation.  And as many of the most prestigious high schools once located in Gangbuk moved to Gangnam, the area known as Gangnam School District 8 was eventually catapulted to top-performing school district countrywide, which in turn caused yet another real-estate bubble.  And as its population (including floating population) kept growing, it became widely known for its lively nightlife.  Gangnam now has rows of high-end, upscale department stores, restaurants, big name entertainment agencies (such as SM and JYP), to name a few.  In short, it’s like the US’s Upper East Side plus Beverly Hills minus tradition; or I’d rather say it’s more like Dubai built on Korean cabbage and Korean pear fields.

The uneven development between Gangnam and Gangbuk has made the former more affluent and its residents richer but made the latter lag behind and its residents feel deprived emotionally as well as economically.  Over the past four decades, Gangnam has become an iconic place to Korean people, representing wealth, status, and luxurious life.  PSY’s “Gangnam Style” is a satire about the Gangnam life itself which is nothing but materialistic and about people who are chasing rainbows, dreaming of becoming a Gangnam resident someday.  If you had googled the phrase 강남스타일 (“Gangnam Style”) before the release of his song, you would have seen so many questions asking “What the heck is Gangnam style.” (Now you’ll get results almost all about the song.)

As Gangnam earned the enviable reputation “overnight” (compared to Korea’s 5000-year-old history) as the best place to live not because it offers rich heritage, sophistication, or cultural legacy, people don’t really know exactly what they are longing for even in the midst of longing for the “Gangnam style.”  And here, PSY is being sarcastic about the idea of “Gangnam style” that is not actually tangible, just like the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Now, let’s listen to the song with English subtitles.

So, the song is a comic satire about people who bluff, pretending to be rich and trendy.  “Oppan Gangnam style” can literally translate to “I’m a Gangnam style,” in which “oppa” is a Korean referring expression used by females to refer to older males such as older male friends or older brothers. However, the narrator in the song refers to himself in the third person.  He keeps saying he lives or loves a Gangnam style life, but in reality, he’s far from it.

One, the music video begins with PSY seemingly sunbathing on sandy beach, being fanned by a hot chick, but it turns out he is surrounded by little kids playing in the playground.  Two, there’s PSY walking together with two hot girls just like P. Diddy walking on the red carpet but in fact, he and the girls are in an outdoor parking lot and, instead of confetti, tens and thousands of pieces of trash are thrown at them; then the fake snow keeps flying into their faces to make them look ridiculous.

Three, he’s been all over the place for the luxury lifestyle but ends up (i) in a sauna with mobsters, not with the wealthy, (ii) on an express bus filled with Ajumma tourists who are known for dancing on the running bus, not in one of those Gangnam nightclubs (Ajumma means a married woman especially with children but many times the word is used in a derogatory manner), and (iii) on a merry-go-round ride, not on a real horseback ride, to name a few.

Four, he’s looking for a hot girl who’s gotta be classy and luxurious in irrelevant places such as under the bridges over the Han River or in the Han River Park and eventually finds his ideal woman on the subway and dances with her and others there, not in one of those Gangnam nightclubs.  Five, when he emerges from the water, it looks like he’s swimming in the swimming pool at a country club or in the sea but it turns out he’s in fact swimming in the public bathhouse.  Six, when he looks like P. Diddy sitting in a luxurious chair, it is actually the toilet he’s sitting on.

In the song, the narrator says he’s looking for a classy lady who can afford a relaxing cup of coffee, and he’s a real man who downs the boiling hot coffee in one go.  And I think some of you may be wondering why he’s making such a big deal out of coffee, but it’s not just your ordinary coffee; it’s gotta be a cup of Starbucks coffee, if you will.  In Korea, there’s a joke poking fun at women who eat 2,000-won (about $2) ramyeon (Korean style ramen) for lunch and then unstintingly spend over 6,000 won (about $5.30) on Starbucks coffee.

Actually, the word Doenjangnyeo (된장녀, “Soybean paste girl/woman”) or Doenjang girl/woman was created to mock women who spend more than they can afford.  Such crazes were believed to be inspired by HBO’s “Sex and the City” in which the designer stuff-obsessed women frequently meet together to talk over brunch or coffee.  But clearly, that you can afford a relaxing cup of “Starbucks” coffee doesn’t make you classy.  And just think about a guy who downs the boiling hot coffee in one go.  Wouldn’t you worry about him?  Hot coffee would burn the mouth and throat.  Contrary to his boasting, it’s never a manly thing to do.

Just like that, PSY is making fun of people that are so vain and materialistic; but at the same time, he’s making a mockery of where he’s really from, that is, Gangnam.  It’s like he’s shouting, “Look at me!  I’m a true Gangnamese but don’t I look really tacky and pathetic?” Had he been good-looking, haughty, and snobbish…who knows, the song might have not been well-received.

For most Koreans are fed up with all those “nouveaux riches” in Gangnam who became rich because of their real estate values skyrocketed “overnight.”  The haves in Gangnam are so materialistic and philistine that they hardly have a real organic relationship with the world outside Gangnam, let alone a sense of noblesse oblige.  Just as much people outside Gangnam admire their wealth, status, and lifestyle, they underestimate and look down on the outsiders. They even gang up on the rest of the world motivated purely by economic self-interest even though it’s contrary to the public interest.  That’s how they have become the scorn of the rest of the world.

And PSY, whose ideas are bumpier than his muscles, are singing this deliciously self-mocking song because he’s just that kind of man.  Now, I hope you’ll understand why each scene is necessary in the song’s music video, and I bet you will if you have read this post.

Related Posts:

  1.  Behind The Scenes: PSY And Making Of Gangnam Style
  2. My Two Cents On The Atlantic Article On Gangnam Style
  3.  Architecture 101 & Gangnam Kids: The Rise Of Nouveaux Riches
  4. What Is Oppan In Gangnam Style?
  5.  Architecture 101 & Gangnam Oppa: The Age Of Riches

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  • Merc

    Wow, thank you for this breakdown. I would definitely never have gotten any of that context on my own. Very cool.

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  • evan

    this was great, thanks for cross-posting it here!

  • J.

    My dad is from Gangnam, but that’s from before it was Gangnam and when everyone was equally poor. He got a kick out of the song.

    While I think there are some non-Asian people who legitimately like the song because it’s catchy and fun, I can’t help but feel that there are those who only like it because, hey, wacky Asians doing wacky Asian things! I can’t really be convinced otherwise when I keep hearing comparisons to William Hung. Seriously?

    • ChristineLA

      I have no doubt there are some that are into this song/video because it is “Asians doing wacky Asian things!”, but I’m not one of them. Psy has actually caused me to seek out more and more information about S. Korea in general, on top of just finding him such a complete and total joy. Honestly, I like him more with every single appearance, and I think S. Korea could do a lot worse in terms of a Goodwill Ambassador.

    • mle

      Unfortunately I think you’re right. Have you seen “Teens React to ‘Gangnam Style'”? It’s what it sounds like, a few teenagers listening to the song and presenting their reactions.

      While some of the kids talked about how they liked the beat, found
      specific things funny, didn’t care for the song, etc., some made
      comments like:

      “Why are they so random in Asia?” (0:53)
      “People in Asia are probably like, ‘Oh, we’re used to this. This is nothing new, people dancing everywhere in the streets.'” (1:19, same girl as above.) [Yes, it’s because Asian people are so weird, not because *it’s a humorous music video.*]
      “This is why I love Asian people, honestly.” (1:45)

      So yeah, apparently some viewers are fitting this into their pre-existing narrative of “Those Wacky Asians,” as opposed to seeing it as a creative, funny work by an artist who’s Korean. :(

  • Michelle Kirkwood

    Hey,thanks for the rundown and brief history lesson on Gangnam—-I checked out this link to the “Gangnam Style” on another less than 3 weeks ago by a poster who’s into Korean soap operas/music, and really loved it, that found not too long afterward that it had already gone viral here in the U.S.—I enjoyed the video/song because it sounds exactly like the same kind of regular dance music influenced pop l listen to on the regular every other day, and it’s just plain fun to watch! . Cool to see a sociological breakdown/analysis on what that particular song really means in a Korean context,as well as a good explanation of it to us curious non-Koreans.

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  • Nga

    Great breakdown!