I haven’t really been on the “Gangnam Style” bandwagon, but this morning I was surprised to learn how popular it has become in America – I mean, it’s not even in English! But the video is really well made and the dance is particularly fun/ny, and  I guess the song is pretty catchy.

This video made me laugh:

But the article I linked to above makes me think twice about the song. For one thing, this is no ordinary “Life is so great and fun! Boys are stupid!(girl groups)/I’m so sorry baby!(boy bands)” K-Pop drivel. This guy is actually satirizing Korean culture – no simple feat. In America, artists are praised for pointing out problems with our culture, the more nuanced the better. In Korea, well… “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” doesn’t even come close. DO NOT CRITICIZE OUR COUNTRY, WE’VE BEEN THROUGH A LOT! is more like it. And criticize they do not. I’ve asked millions of questions to Koreans asking them to explain to me various issues I see in the country (not because I’m trying to be overly critical, I just want to know what they think or if they know why things are unfolding), and I rarely get a sufficient, thoughtful response. More often than not, I get an uninterested shrug.

One of the first things Hong pointed to in explaining the video’s subtext was, believe it or not, South Korea’s sky-high credit card debt rate. In 2010, the average household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent). There are nearly five credit cards for every adult. South Koreans have been living on credit since the mid-1990s, first because their country’s amazing growth made borrowing seem safe, and then in the late 1990s when the government encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian financial crisis. The emphasis on heavy spending, coupled with the country’s truly astounding, two-generation growth from agrarian poverty to economic powerhouse, have engendered the country with an emphasis on hard work and on aspirationalism, as well as the materialism that can sometimes follow.

Gangnam, Hong said, is a symbol of that aspect of South Korean culture. The neighborhood is the home of some of South Korea’s biggest brands, as well as $84 billion of its wealth, as of 2010. That’s seven percent of the entire country’s GDP in an area of just 15 square miles. A place of the most conspicuous consumption, you might call it the embodiment of South Korea’s one percent. “The neighborhood in Gangnam is not just a nice town or nice neighborhood. The kids that he’s talking about are not Silicon Valley self-made millionaires. They’re overwhelmingly trust-fund babies and princelings,” he explained.

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.” Park Jaesang isn’t just unusual because of his age, appearance, and style; he writes his own songs and choreographs his own videos, which is unheard of in K-Pop. But it’s more than that. Maybe not coincidentally, he attended both Boston University and the Berklee College of Music, graduating from the latter. His exposure to American music’s penchant for social commentary, and the time spent abroad that may have given him a new perspective on his home country, could inform his apparently somewhat critical take on South Korean society.

Okay… now I kind of like this song. Or at least Psy. I wish my kids’ English was good enough to do a unit on this video, asking them if they can tell me what they think this song is REALLY about.

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