Gangnam style: on the surface its success seems to be a story of the raw power of the internet. A flamboyant South Korean rapper, though he sings in a language most of us don’t understand, produces a single with an addictive beat and visuals eye catching enough to make the video go gangbusters via Facebook shares. The song becomes the most watched video ever on Youtube, and a radio hit in countries around the world.
Certainly no one can deny that the craftily conceived video is a huge factor in the success of Gangnam style; the oddly suggestive “horse” dance has become world famous. And those curious enough to look up the translation find that despite the explicit nature of the video, which among other things features a lewd dance in an elevator by a guy stripped down to his briefs, rapper Psy’s lyrics are actually about how he wants to date a woman who drinks coffee.
Beneath the bump and grind of the video, Psy fills his lyrics with wry jabs at the upper class denizens of the wealthy Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul. The apparently incoherent line “I like a girl who drinks coffee” is actually a dig at the social climbing women who spend more money than they can really afford at coffee shops.
But can the success of Gangnam Style be chalked up to zany perverted visuals, sly lyrics, and savvy use of the internet? As anyone who lives in a large city anywhere in the world can attest, there’s a bit more to it than that. That’s because every big city in the world has its own Gangnam, its own high profile neighbourhood, which to rich and poor alike serves to entice and irritate in equal measure.
As portrayed in the video, Gangnam is an extreme blend of public and private. The district features a number of public plazas and parks, most of which are well maintained. Gangnam serves the important function of providing memorable public landmarks. And like most rich neighborhoods around the world, it is a major tourist destination, and was already a tourist hot spot even before the onslaught of “Gangnam style” related visits. The area is also home to well-protected, exclusive areas such as the horse corrals seen in the beginning of the video. This is a perfect archetypal rich neighborhood; Gangnam could easily be New York’s Upper East Side or Paris’s Champs Elysees. Even countries traditionally considered to be less wealthy feature similar neighborhoods. Take a trip to Mexico City or São Paulo and you’ll find they have Gangnam districts of their own.
The essence of the Gangnam neighborhoods of each and every city worldwide is the deft manipulation of public and private ways of life. Seoul’s elite are happy for throngs of visitors to enjoy public plazas, or the now famous duck boats of Hangham park seen in the Gangnam style video. But they don’t want the unwashed masses to come inside their highbrow riding clubs, only a few blocks away. A more extreme example of this was seen last year during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. The public/private Zucotti Park, which wall street bigwigs were normally happy to have open to the public, was quickly flipped to private mode after it became the epicenter of a nationwide protest movement that business leaders didn’t exactly fancy. With austerity movements in Europe and the United States, the trend toward increased privatization is only growing.
In this context, Gangnam Style can be seen as an act of revolution, albeit a metaphorical one. Psy models his dance after the most exclusive action taken in the neighborhood (horseback riding) and brings it to the parks, plazas, and curiously-shaped boats of the district. And the citizens of the world, tantalysed by the opulence yet troubled by the excessive exclusivity, are thrilled to see this. Deep down inside every middle class city dweller, there’s a desire to rail against the divisions built into the Gangnam district of his or her own city, and what better way to do so than with a stingingly satirical horse dance?
So, while Gangnam Style will continue to proliferate mostly due to the dry humour of its lyrics and the dry humping in its video, the subliminal connection it makes with city dwellers yearning for a little less exclusivity in their own Gangnam neighborhoods will also continue to resonate.
Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specializing in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.