Any explanation of Gangnam must start with the fact that it is not so much a place, as much as it is an aspirational concept for many South Koreans. It is a symbol for an entire lifestyle, a developmental dream come true for a country that was basically no different from Afghanistan today, when the Korean War ended in 1953. As part of his explanation of a very South Korean piece of culture for American audiences, PSY has called Gangnam, "the Korean Beverly Hills," which is both a useful and inaccurate analogy. Koreans often describe the Korean dish bindaetteok, a savory, batter-fried patty filled with goodies from scallions to shrimp, as "Korean pizza." In one sense, this shorthand term for the non-Korean uninitiated is an apt description, but quite a bit is lost in the translation, since the foods are far from analogous across their respective cultural milieaux.
The fact is, that for Americans, Beverly Hills is simply a famous (or perhaps infamous), wealthy neighborhood in L.A., and not much more than a site of cultural spectacle. It is merely one of many cultural symbols of conspicuous consumption and a certain kind of wealth. But, one has to remember that, unlike the United States, South Korea is a recently developed country that, on the ground and for most people, isn't more than a single generation removed from the farm. In development-obsessed South Korea, this fact has been forgotten by many, and even for those who have not, it has become an inconvenient historical truth. Real old money and true power preexisted the explosion of wealth that happened below the Han River in the 1980s, and most of that was concentrated in a few old neighborhoods in northern Seoul around the presidential Blue House (the Korean "White House"). During the late 1980s and the rapid development of land below the Han River, traditional neighborhoods and the southernmost border of old Seoul, almost all of what is now called Gangnam (which literally means "south of the river", as "gang" means "river" and "nam" means "south"), was farmland and rice paddies. But, as the dictator-led economy and expansion-minded city of Seoul continued in their development plans, they hungrily eyed these expanses of "unused" land as a place to develop modern roads, skyscrapers and neighborhoods. Countless numbers of farmers had their land bought out, swelling the ranks of Korea's youngest societal group, that of newly-minted real-estate millionaires.
As with any nouveau riche, especially one born in a formerly feudalistic and impoverished country, it quickly dove into a pattern of unapologetic and very conspicuous consumption, which became a symbol of both national triumph and chagrin. South Korean people watched the antics of those living in Gangnam with a mix of envy, amusement and derision. One thing to understand about the Korean mindset in this regard is the popular quote and quip, "When a cousin buys a piece of land, one's stomach hurts." The Korean version of the universal emotion of jealousy includes a pretty hefty dose of personalized loathing.
Importantly, Gangnam is both the physical and cultural space through which many trends have entered Korea. For the entire country, Gangnam is the cultural "Ground Zero" for the new and novel, as well as the wonderfully weird, and exists as a point within several concentric circles of cultural and fiscal power. In this sense, Gangnam lies at the center of Seoul, which, itself, has always been the central part of the nation and culture. Trends often come into Gangnam first and are seen as the idiosyncratic pursuits of the very rich before they become mainstream things to do, such as attending health clubs, practicing yoga, or doing Pilates. For example, foreign (mostly European) cars were first seen as the playthings of the frivolously super-rich back when the everyday, working class, "good" Korean was busy being faithful to the nation by buying only domestically made cars from Daewoo or Hyundai. (It also helped that foreign cars were always slapped with import taxes that nearly doubled their sticker price above domestic cars.) Owning a Mercedes or BMW was a nearly impossible dream for the average Korean, and such cars were mostly visible on certain famous streets in Gangnam. Even the English loan word of "luxury" itself could be defined by certain items that were essentially "Gangnam," from a Volkswagen convertible to a Macintosh computer. It's interesting that to note, that while for many Americans the formerly less practical Macintosh computer represented someone who was involved in artistic pursuits or were deeply involved in design, which was a functional stereotype that came from the Macintosh's early initial strengths in those markets. In Korea, however, a Macintosh computer was also initially a symbol of being a part of the artistic intelligentsia, but the heavy markup price also made it a symbol of wealth. A Macintosh computer was the very definition of foreign-branded "luxury."
Cute-as-a-button and effortlessly sharp goes this fashion-design student, with sketchbook actually in hand! Street fashion couldn't get any more fashionable, what with such folks floating around. If this is what the casual kids are wearing, what do the "cool kids" look like? Indeed, the bar starts high, especially on this street, which never disappoints, since we started the shoot in front of Coffeesmith, where the cool go not just for coffee, but to be seen.
So, it goes with the coffee shop culture, which happens to have a long and working class history as social spaces in which Koreans met outside the home, which is itself a very private space in Korean culture. But, in the early days when coffee shops were not much more than traditional tea rooms that had evolved into ones that included coffee on the menu, before the Korean coffee shop involved to the next level of the foreign-controlled Starbucks, coffee had not been a luxury item. Anthropologist Bak Sangmee, who studies Korean consumption patterns and identity, once concluded that it was the politics of conspicuous consumption that was responsible for Starbucks' eventual success in Korea, as opposed to love of high-quality coffee, since coffee in Korea to that point had always been something associated with coffee mixers in plastic tubes, as indeed, powdered coffee on the black market from G.I. ration boxes defined coffee to most Koreans in the 1950s. Another thing that marks the "Gangnam Style" way of thinking, is the fact that prices of Starbucks coffee in Korea are among the highest in the world, since it was found that Korean consumers actually bought less coffee when the prices were reduced.
It is interesting to note that many of the trends associated with leisure time and disposable income are represented in PSY's video through women exercising, which was, not even two decades ago, considered antithetical to the pursuit of life as a "good" girl in Korea. Not even 20 years ago ago, women associated physical exercise and exertion with developing the muscles of a female bodybuilder, and it was unheard of for a woman to go jogging, lest her legs ballooned to the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger's. So went the thinking, not to mention the fact that fitness trends such as aerobics, structured dances, not to mention yoga, are generally associated with foreign influence and affluence itself. Even today, these associations still persist, which is what PSY was playing with in the video, with the attractive young ladies doing yoga in what would have only been considered overly-provocative poses by the old guard and the old-fashioned. PSY's comical silent scream seems to convey the hilarious contrast between a more old-fashioned way of looking at silly Gangnam young women doing extremely trendy Western things, and a more recent, worldly view that urges polite self-control, despite the overwhelming urge to giggle in schoolboy glee at the obvious fact that hot young women are sticking their butts out in what appears to be a gesture of wanton sexuality. It is indeed telling that, at various times in Korea's rapid development, conspicuous displays of wealth by the rich were often the target of social criticism, and in times of economic crisis, even the target of official austerity measures and campaigns. One must consider that a major factor in Koreans love of golf is not merely wrapped up in their pursuit's necessity as a part of business and networking, but also as what used to be an extremely ostentatious display of wealth. Sure, there is some of this in the West as well, but such leisure pursuits in Korea, given the much shorter history of having disposable income at all, take on a much more ostentatiously loaded valence. The cultural memory and meaning of this fact are nonexistent and irrelevant to the Western viewer, who simply see these pursuits as ways to exercise and pass the time. Indeed, there is a whole politics and history behind something as simple as mere coffee for Koreans, which entered the culture as a "strange concoction" drunk by American soldiers in the 1950s, became more trendy around the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the high interest at the time to both appear and actually become more "international," before Starbucks' entry into Korea in 1999 turned the drink into the conspicuously consumed, branded commodity it is today.
In the video that we have all come to know and love, PSY is playing with popular characters who embody ways of thinking and trends that South Koreans all know. Even the idea of sexy young women who show too much of their bodies (and who assume sexy poses while doing trendy things such as yoga) is very much "Gangnam." Until not too long ago, so it went for any woman who displayed nonconservative mores or seemed to violate notions of restrained Confucian virtue. In fact, there has been a somewhat male and conservative backlash that has created a new societal character called the "bean paste stew girl" (dwaen-jang-nyeo). She is the embodiment of the undesirable kind of "bad girl," who is bad for a normal, red-blooded Korean man, as she is the kind of woman who can be seen festooned with Western designer handbags and Jimmy Choos, who is sexy and over-confident and does all the things that a good, demure, traditional Korean woman wouldn't. The dwaen-jang-nyeo's values are all out-of-whack, since she would rather save money by eating this cheap, traditional Korean dish at lunch and use the rest of her monthly salary to buy a trendy handbag. Such is the origin of this derogatory term for a woman choosing to spend her hard-earned money the way she wants to, as opposed to perhaps giving it to her parents or saving for marriage expenses. To the old guard, independent working women and the social power that their earning power buys is a sign of the old ways sliding back. This exists in the background of the song's conversation about coffee, and the hinting at the dwaen-jang nyeo figure who wastes time sitting around chatting and burning money on expensive, branded coffee in Gangnam coffee shops. Or, perhaps they spend a lot of time (and money) developing their bodies to be more sexy by doing things such as yoga and Pilates, and then go to expensive coffee shops to complain about the shortcomings of their good, hard-working boyfriends.
It wasn't all too long ago when no woman would be caught dead smoking in public, let alone pose smoking in a picture appearing in an international publication, lest she later find herself unable to find a good, Korean husband. Wearing items of clothing that revealed a flash of belly button was also unthinkable. But, if it happened, it was imagined to be something that could only happen in Gangnam.
It's funny to think that Korea was once a place where even bare shoulders were once considered taboo (just as recently as the 1980s), which marks this demure sweater as a bit racy, making it apropos to find in an otherwise cutesy ensemble down below the river. Not every woman in Korea is rocking 6" stilettos, and flats are all the rage with more dressed-down types. But, you still have to throw something extra into the mix in this hood.
Oppa, Gangnam Style! This guy was just peacocking too hard and well to be ignored. He embodies the look and unapolagetically pimpin' aspect of true male "Gangnam Style," boldly boastful, colorful, and full of swag. Turns out that my main man is a fashion designer with his own brand, appropriately called "JImmy Tailor."
One thing affluence has brought South Korea, especially below the river, where it first exploded, in both fact and in popular conception, is the good nutrition and length of bone that pre-development life made impossible. One popular impression of Gangnam people is of tall, healthy, beautiful women, who literally stand a head above women from other regions, especially outside of the capital city, Seoul.
People often say of Gangnam that "the women look like fashion models." One can't help but think that this young lady, with the height, perfect Prell-commercial hair, flawless, unblemished skin and great bone structure, looks like the "after" picture in a Photoshop demonstration.
To the extent that there is a "Gangnam Style," at least in the popular mind, if not in fact, there is arguably a "Gangbuk style" running through the popular mindset, in the same way that the dwaen-jang nyeo apparently populates the landscape of Gangnam, the analogous image of a fashion sense grounded in domestic values, of a reserved, more demure and traditional "good girl," is the antithesis of Gangnam Style. This is the same discourse of good and bad, risqué versus demure, modern versus traditional; life goes on even within the clothing of a given individual, not to mention between the senses of fashion both below and above the Han river.
Here, a woman in the trendy female-heavy shopping district of Myeong-dong (in Gangbuk) rocks a more self-consciously demure and feminine look that might work best above the Han river. Cutesy bows and ribbons, along with lots of pink, still channel the more feminine, demure dictates of Korean gender and female fashion, and get remixed into a kind of sexy-cute kitsch.
There is definitely a lot of social commentary going on in the song, and PSY is playing with making some lighthearted fun of well-known societal characters, and is thrown into the mix a lot of acts and pursuits that have come to be imbued with great social meaning over the short history that Korea has been a rich country and has even had the ability to develop a "Gangnam Style." But, to read the song and the video as a kind of incisive societal critique is to stretch things a bit far, since PSY is simply having fun with societal characters that South Koreans all know, and isn't anymore "subversive" then weird Al Yankovic at his best. And different going to get into dubious cultural analogies, I would have to say that PSY is more akin to "Korea's Weird Al Yankovic" than he is some symbol of K-pop's imminent ascendancy. Remember, Weird Al Yankovic is a musical comedian; PSY is much better described as a comedic musician. And that's the point -- whether or not PSY was a very good student at the Berklee College of Music, he has always been a musician first, since the music comes first, which is why it has to be fun and danceable before it becomes heady. And since so much of real "Gangnam Style" revolves around the politics of luxury "items" that include fast cars, expensive clothes and hot women, it is no surprise that a talented musician could take those subjects and roll it into a veritable national anthem that is somewhere on the mind of every modern South Korean, as well as any young person, anywhere, who is also following "the elusive dream" that defines the fun life of our twenties. In that sense, there's a little bit of "Gangnam Style" in all of us.
Video Addendum: Two 20-somethings break it down: