“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh… oppan Gangnam style”… Just the lyrics probably have you picturing that hilariously moronic horse dance, or covering your ears in anticipation. If you haven’t seen the video for Korean pop-rapper Psy’s infectious parody on Seoul’s southern business district yet, you can’t be the web-loving type. In it, Psy discos up some stables, graces the faux VIP areas of locations such as playgrounds and Han River boat rides, and generally tries to convince the local ladies that he has the necessary street cred to be worth a second look.
Eyeing the video, you could be forgiven for thinking Gangnam is the heart of everything in Seoul. In some senses, you’d be right. As home to a huge number of the city’s major businesses, Gangnam is a district of skyscrapers, exceptionally high property prices and one of the few Seoul neighbourhoods where a typical Dublin visitor’s travel budget could be utterly obliterated by stepping into the wrong restaurant. On a week night, businessmen view ‘entertaining’ customers as a part of their job. As a result, the nightlife is heavily occupied by suited men, yet tends to be wild and alcohol fueled. The ‘kimchi flower’, an unfortunate product of vomit-inducing levels of soju and the Korean love of the spicy, red fermented cabbage ‘kimchi’, is a common sight on the area’s otherwise pristine sidewalks. Generally Gangnam glimmers with designer chic and clean-cut business facades, but there is a seedier side. That lies in the much discussed but possibly mythical brothel bars, and in the aptly named DVD bangs (bang translates as room), private cinemas that have more to do with sex than watching your choice of movie.
The women of Gangnam, though, are Psy’s concern. Generally speaking, Korea has an exceptionally image conscious society, particularly among the better off. There’s a fascination with looks that goes far beyond what’s common in Europe, so much so that plastic surgery is commonly advertised and bordering on expected of the rich. One of Gangnam’s most notable stereotypes is the Dweonjang lady, a woman on an average salary who’s willing to survive on cheap dweonjang noodles and commute huge distances in order to save for a Louis Vuitton hang bag or a Prada coat. The brands form a rare exception to the general Korean belief that ‘Korean is better’ (Samsung barely has to concern itself with Apple in its own country), and they’re so common in the Gangnam district that if you didn’t know better, you’d think they were a standard, affordable brand.
Whether Psy even wants these women is not as simple as it seems. They are infamously high maintenance, and his entire video is based on mocking their lifestyle. He might offer “oppan Gangnam Style” with a nudge and a wink in the middle of his chorus, but there’s a dual meaning on offer. Oppa (the ‘n’ is possessive) is a respectful way of addressing an older male stranger or superior, that translates literally as ‘big brother’, though it implies no blood relationship. It’s the way that a respectful youngster might address an older man, and has an element of inbuilt sleaze in this context. On the surface, Psy seems to be offering the most direct of come ons, but throw in a video that features ‘glamour’ in the most distinctively un-Gangnam of locations – not least a riverside yoga meet and a kid’s playground – and the entire idea is subverted.
There are plenty of sub-culture angles for Psy to take aim at. Gangnam woman are arguably at the heart of Korea’s big-business sexism, a part of a society that seems to sincerely believe that even senior-level company women should get the coffee during a major business meeting, and where the fairer sex is often hired based at least partly on looks. By taking a swipe at the aesthetic-based side of the culture, Psy’s points are actually more adept and serious than most westerners might realise.
Aside from being slim (a near universal attribute of Korean citizens), the standards of beauty in Seoul can be quite different to ours. Korean men often find particular attraction in women with a ‘small face’, for example, and the local culture heavily pressurizes women to marry by the age of 30. By 28, Korean women might have to field daily questions on their marital status from friends and relatives, and largely place an extremely heavy focus on settling down even early in relationships. That particular cultural angle goes a long way to explaining why Psy addresses himself as ‘big brother’ in the song: at 34, he’s clearly going to be an elder to many of the women he’s somewhat sarcastically trying to relate to.
A touch ironically, there’s no doubt that the song would go down a storm in Gangnam. Away from the main subway station crossroad and its four mammoth highways, the back streets are a glorious sprawl of restaurants with tanks of live seafood out front, neon signs, snack carts and convenience stores. During my time in Seoul, the K-Pop sensation was a girl group called Wondergirls, whose slightly painful song ‘Tell Me’ was pumped from every storefront on what seemed like an incessant loop. They’ve since gone on to work with Akon and tour internationally. By all accounts, Gangnam Style is receiving an equally – if not more – obsessive reception.
Wondergirls, like most K-Pop, peddle throwaway stuff. I have to stifle a chuckle when trendy reviewers on the likes of Pitchfork cite K-Pop influences in modern indie bands. Korea has a burgeoning and impressive rock scene, and often plays host to major name western bands, but K-Pop is largely as mind-numbingly saccharine as music comes, reminiscent of the kind of hit produced in association with a kids TV show, except with more glitter, more synth and a weird kind of sexuality. Wondergirls, for example, were largely underage when ‘Tell Me’ came out, but still seemed to have grown men fawning over their weak-vocaled, synth-driven Spice Girls impressions. Hailing K-Pop’s influence in modern-day alt. indie is no different to extolling the impact of the Sponge Bob theme tune on Radiohead’s latest, though in acts like the entertainingly quirky Seo Tae Gi, there are occasional exceptions. Wondergirls, incidentally, also came with their own dance, and almost every lunch time I’d buy myself some sushi or a bowl of ramen whilst younger locals pulled the moves in the Gangnam shop queues. Like large parts of Seoul’s culture, K-Pop is almost universally extremely immediate (meals, for example, typically arrive no more than five minutes after you order them). Psy, I suspect, knows this, and made the immediacy of his satire a target.
Gangnam, though, is not Korea’s creative hub; it’s more of an easy target. The north Seoul university district of Hongdae, a place as wild as any corner of the more party-focused South East Asia and home of the all night party, is the gritty place to be. Gangnam is about the rich and the famous, a corner of the city leaning on designer lifestyles, as relevant to Korea’s musical knife edge as Ballsbridge is to Dublin’s. The district’s about pricey puffer fish dinners, bars where you dip your feet in a spa while you drink, and private, high-end ‘DVD room’ hook ups. Hongdae, being late night, edgy and sweatbox, is Berlin to Gangnam’s Monte Carlo. For Koreans, the delicate satirical swipe is what makes Gangnam Style such a work of genius. For the rest of us, uncovering the layers of sarcasm make for an intriguing unravel.
James Hendicott worked as an English teacher in Gangnam, a business district of Seoul, South Korea, for 18 months in 2007/08