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Decoding Gangnam Style

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MUSIC Topping the YouTube and the U.S. iTunes charts, Korean Pop King PSY’s number ‘Gangnam Style’ is the current rage

GALLOPING TO FAMESouth Korean rapper Psy performs his Gangnam Style live on NBC’s Today showPHOTO: AP
GALLOPING TO FAMESouth Korean rapper Psy performs his Gangnam Style live on NBC’s Today showPHOTO: AP

I’m afraid you have no choice. Get off your high horse and onto that invisible one. Hands in front. Gallop. Shuffle. Imaginary lasso. All done Gangnam style.

Gangnam what? Well, you know… the latest viral video, by PSY.

PSY who? Come on, he’s the current king of K-Pop.

K-Pop what? Oh dear. Let’s start at the beginning. In fact, we’ll be really nice and hand you this cheat sheet. Now you can look cool when you hang with your better-informed ten-year-old nephews and nieces.

What is Gangnam Style anyway?

On July 15, Korean Pop (K-Pop) video ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY was posted on YouTube. Just 51 days and it had 100 million views. It zoomed to the top of the YouTube chart beating Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Bieber. A few days ago, the song made it to No. 1 on the U.S. iTunes Top Song chart, which it entered in late August at No. 58.

The singer, PSY, recently taught Britney Spears how to do his ‘galloping horse dance’, coining a new popular catch phrase “Dress classy and dance cheesy.” He also performed live at the Rockefeller Centre in New York City for NBC’s Today show.

It’s an accomplishment, considering the song is in his native language, with no translations. PSY is the first Korean artist to go mainstream in the U.S. This was largely possible because of the Internet, since the song went viral via mobile phones and computers, on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

So far the official video has 190,978,897 views. Numbers just keep going up.

What’s special about it?

Depends on who you ask.

The aggressively hypnotic techno trance beat that seems designed for hard-core clubbing. The eminently catchy tune, with its peppy chorus, which children love. The dancing with its repetitive steps.

Think ‘Macarena’, or the ‘Birdie Dance’. Only this is hipper, slicker and slightly more challenging. Designed for blasé audiences with short attention spans. High octane pop illustrated in a fresh, flashy video, bouncing with bubble gum bright colour.

Scene changes are as rapid as they are random, in PSY’s romp through conventional urban spaces. He’s snoozing in a deckchair under a bright pink umbrella. He’s in a horse stable in Seoul. He’s spoofing cult videos, walking through an abandoned parking lot in fake snow. It gets more bizarre. Here he’s dozing off in the sauna wrapped in a baby blue and pink towel. There he’s bouncing around a tour bus, jiggling with disco balls.

Next comes the march of Korean celebrities. A solemn dance off with comedian Yoo Jae Suk, dressed in Canary Yellow. The ‘elevator dance’ replete with pelvic thrusts, featuring comedian Noh Hong-Cheol. Finally busting some moves with redhead, Kim Hyun-a, the popular K-Pop girl group 4Minute.

Short, plump and bespectacled, PSY’s an unlikely star. Especially in K-Pop where the girls are pretty and the boys prettier. However, his ‘everyman’ persona seems to be his not-so-secret weapon. He’s willing to laugh at the world, and himself. And this sharp subversive humour is what elevates the song from catchy to memorable.

Is PSY his real name?

You wish! Born Park Jae-Song, he’s a 34-year-rapper from South Korea. His stage name comes from his first album Psy From The Psycho World released in 2001. He studied at the prestigious Berkeley College of Music in the United States.

You will probably see more of him now that he has signed a contract with American label Schoolboy Records after being spotted by music producer Scooter Braun. (Best known for discovering Justin Bieber.) Braun famously toasted PSY over glasses of Korean Soju saying, “To PSY, to Korea, to breaking down barriers, to the future.”

But we still don’t get ‘Gangnam’?

It’s a wealthy district in Seoul, South Korea, where people go clubbing, brunching and shopping for new noses. As famous for luxury boutiques as it is for cosmetic surgeons. The song can be interpreted as an attack on the world of the over privileged.

Ironically, the district is drawing tourists because of the song. Korea Tourism has responded to this interest with their ‘One day Gangnam tour’ that begins with some ‘gangnam styling’ at a beauty salon, shopping at the Apgujeong & Cheongdam boutiques, a quick luxury coffee and brunch, followed by the casino and clubbing.

Can we sing it?

Of course. Even if you can’t master the Korean verses, chant the chorus ‘Oppan Gangnam Style’ which roughly means something like ‘Your man has Gangnam Style.’

PS: Although ‘Oppa’ literally means ‘big brother,’ it is also a term girls use to address older boyfriends, or — gasp — sugar daddies. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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