Beyond the Horse Dance

Viral vid ‘Gangnam Style’ critiques Korea’s extreme inequality.

By Sukjong Hong
August 24, 2012 | , , , , , , , , ,

Spitting words through lips coated in fake snow—surging clumsily through the surface of a spa pool—galloping against a backdrop of immaculate high rise buildings and tennis courts—these scenes from the video “Gangnam Style” by Korean hip hop artist PSY are now replaying themselves in the minds of 50 million YouTube viewers and counting. Perhaps you have seen it yourself, maybe more than once.

While the lyrics are ostensibly about PSY proclaiming himself a classy guy while conjuring up his dream girlfriend, the video has taken on a life of its own beyond the Korean pop charts, and the title,“Gangnam Style,” has become a new shorthand for swag. Taking a glance at social media, it appears you can have eggs Gangnam Style, Olympic penalty kicks Gangnam Style, or crash the prom Gangnam Style. Some fans, like Josh Groban, have tweeted, “It’s a Gangnam Style world and we are all living in it.”

Most are content to marvel and move on, allowing the video to remain largely inscrutable. College Humor prefaced the video with, “No, we cannot quite figure it out either. We just know that we want to.” The Wall Street Journal admitted, “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why PSY’s video took off among America’s online hipsters.” At, a reviewer wrote, “The name of the song is “Gangnam Style,” but that hardly seems important in the face of the monumental artistic achievement that is the video.” The overriding sentiment of the day seems to be that “Gangnam Style” is yet another marvelous internet artifact, satisfying mostly in its strangeness.

Yet I think something would be lost if we left “Gangnam Style” at that. PSY does something in his video that few other artists, Korean or otherwise, do: He parodies the wealthiest, most powerful neighborhood in South Korea. Sure, he uses physical humor to make it seemingly about him, a man who wants to project glamour but keeps falling short. All of his mannerisms, from the curled upper lip to a sinister neck-stretching move, come from the repertoire of a rich playboy, and in his hands, they become a little laughable. But ultimately, by declaring “Oppa is Gangnam Style,” he turns the lens on Gangnam, getting specific about power and privilege in a country where a single district has long dominated in almost every arena.

Gangnam club kids. (

What is Gangnam exactly? As one Korean housewife shared with the Korean Herald, “You have to live in Gangnam to be called rich. That’s why we call Korea the ‘Republic of Gangnam.'”

To be clear, Gangnam has no real equivalent in the United States. The closest approximation would be Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Beverly Hills, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Miami Beach all rolled into one. From the video, most people can gather that Gangnam has some happening clubs and swank amenities—but its real estate is also the most expensive in the nation (at roughly $14,000 per pyong, or 3.3 square meters) and, although just 15 square miles, more valuable than all of the real estate in Korea’s second largest city of Busan. Combined with its neighbors, Seocho and Songpa, often lumped under “Gangnam” as well, its land value accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s real estate value.

Gangnam in the 1970s.

It is headquarters to Korea’s largest corporations, from Samsung to Hyundai, host to the bulk of its financial and banking institutions, home to a great number of its elected national officials, and, on top of this, the preferred hood of movie and pop music stars. If the heirs of Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart’s Walton family, Chevron, General Electric, Apple, and AT&T (America’s most profitable corporations) all lived in one district and went to the same schools, that would be in Gangnam. If most subway lines and national bus routes converged in one location, again—that would be in Gangnam. None of this happened by chance, of course, but through deliberate government investment since the 1970s which transformed Gangnam from exurban farmland to gleaming metropolitan center in the space of a few decades.

Forty one percent of Seoul University admittees in 2010 came from Gangnam.

This extreme wealth translates most visibly in the high stakes world of education in South Korea. This is where Gangnam style is not so far from the United States. Imagine if 41 percent of Harvard University undergrads came from a single neighborhood. This is what happens in Gangnam. In 2010, Gangnam’s education budget was $25 million, or more than 8 times the budget of a relatively poor district, which spent $3 million. In this aspect, Gangnam Style means no penny is spared to make sure one’s child can get ahead. Thus, 1 in 25 elementary school students from Gangnam study abroad, mostly in English-speaking countries, to improve their competitive edge. The culture of competition was even the subject of an entire Korean drama series called, “Catch a Gangnam Mother” This preference for international schooling translates into higher education as well, especially in the arts, design and humanities fields. Thus, at New York’s Parson’s School for Design, where the largest group of international students comes from South Korea, a Korean friend attending the school commented, “Oh, they all come from the same few blocks in Gangnam.” While this may be an exaggeration, in all likelihood, Gangnam style is probably the most represented among Korean international students attending U.S. schools. There are roughly 28,000 international students from South Korea in New York City alone.

On the flip side, the predominance of Gangnam youth studying abroad means that Gangnam is also where they bring some of their newly adopted cultures home. Thus, Gangnam is known for its hip-hop clubs and hip-hop apparel stores. YG Entertainment, PSY’s new management company, also owns a club there.

So, is it true that we are all living Gangnam Style? Seoul has the distinction of being the city where people work the most hours a year among all OECD countries, at 2111 hours in 2010, more than 50 working days over the OECD average. For blue-collar workers, a 12-hour day is normal. More than half the workforce finds employment in contractual or temporary labor, in which unpaid or mandatory overtime is a given. For young professionals, getting out of the office before 10 or 11 p.m. is a rarity. By 2008, South Korea was no. 3 in income disparity among OECD nations, and the wealth gap has not lessened. Times have only gotten tougher for the poorest in South Korea, but the wealthiest 20 percent have seen a rise of more than 20 percent in their disposable income.

Thus, when PSY goes to town in yoga classes, stables, party buses and tennis courts, he is showcasing forms of leisure that are not accessible to most Koreans on a regular basis. At the same time, he can’t quite cut it. He’s in a bathhouse with gangsters (signified by their tattoos) instead of salarymen, he’s partying on a bus with retirees, and he’s posturing from the throne of a tiny toilet stall. He twists every signifier of wealth into a hilarious ‘what if?’

I can’t help seeing the slightest helping of social critique in his parody of the wealthy upper class. His video, in a sense, is a visual smorgasborg of culturally-specific class symbols, but the high-production spectacle is so marvelous that we could get lost in the empty thrill of it.

Is oppa Gangnam Style? So few of us are, and so, PSY says, he’s going to have fun laughing at it all.

Sukjong Hong covers Flushing as Open City's Creative Nonfiction Fellow. Once a participating artist for Still Presents Past, a traveling exhibit based on oral histories of the Korean War, she has also written on South Korea’s DMZ for Triple Canopy. She has traveled to and coordinated study trips and programs in South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. Contact her at sukjong33 [at] or follow her @hongriver.

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  1. Great article!

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  3. Very insightful look at the current socioeconomic climate of Korea. Many Korean students contact me looking for tutoring in English; most of them have impeccable English already. Most of them come from Gangnam.
    Overall, it’s a brilliant article.

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  5. Much better than the other analyses of this phenomenon! Kudos!!

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  7. great article! thank you for giving me a new perspective on this video and rooting the fun fluff to some social and economic realities. the scene in the video where an explosion throws off the 2 Korean farmers resonates differently to me now. anything and everything for the sake of money and modernization, i guess?

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  11. Thank you all for the comments! I just wanted to add a footnote from recent news related to Gangnam Style: Korea’s top ten chaebol make up 80% of Korea’s economy
    Wealth concentration in Korea is not only spatial, but resides in a handful of big companies, and it’s only increased over the years. Thanks for reading!

  12. Pingback: Gangnam Style aka PSY-Sanity « Land of Gazillion Adoptees

  13. I have seen this income disparity first hand. In terms of the fancy building index, outside of Gangnam, Seoul is mainly forgettable. It seems Korea is more advanced than Beijing, but an eerily similar picture of ghetto buildings hidden behind gleaming skyscrapers remains.

    People in Gangnam act differently and look different from other parts of Seoul. They wear designer labels, drive BMWs (which cost twice as much as in the USA due to 100%-150% import taxes), and are arrogant like the rich subset of any population. They are taller and have different facial features due to the preponderance of plastic surgery.

    Unfortunately, the Gangnam view of Korea is what is attractive to modern youth (including me). While ostensibly less impressive, the culture is outside of Gangman proper is still vibrant, albeit in a more authentic and Korean way. Most people seem to live paycheck to paycheck, while working 14 hour days.

    It makes for an interesting thought experiment to imagine how my life would have turned out had I grown up in Seoul instead of suburban white America. My family could have gotten rich in the Gangnam real estate boom, but most likely we would have ended up like the poor majority.

  14. Sukjong,

    I’m afraid your article has quite a few misleading parts here.
    The hip-hop scene in Seoul is concentrated in Hongdae, where almost all the YG Entertainment properties are. Gangnam is more techno when speaking of clubs.

    Furthermore, while the disproportionate amount of students from Gangnam at SNU is certainly telling, you have to take the number of people living there. The districts in Gangnam are also the most densely-populated districts in Seoul. You can’t just put demographics out of the equation and say, “oh look, 41% percent of SNU students come from Gangnam.” That’s distortion.

    Most of the headquarters for the conglomerates are actually in the central business district (CBD). I don’t know where you’re getting these facts from. The only notable chaebols in Gangnam are Samsung and Hyundai Motors, and the latter is located almost at the edge of Seoul, where it’s not at all associated with wealth. They moved there because the land was cheap.

    The original Hyundai HQ is still where it was founded, next to the ancient palaces.

    Finally, no one is reporting the fact that the man behind the Psy identity is actually very much Gangnam style, coming from a well-off family and studying in the States himself.

    I continue to be baffled by these overly serious analyses of this video, when the guy is clearly not Eminem from Detroit.

    • In continuing to respond to Jay’s comments –

      Jay writes:
      “Furthermore, while the disproportionate amount of students from Gangnam at SNU is certainly telling, you have to take the number of people living there. The districts in Gangnam are also the most densely-populated districts in Seoul. You can’t just put demographics out of the equation and say, “oh look, 41% percent of SNU students come from Gangnam.” That’s distortion.”

      Let’s be clear with the facts:
      The 2010 population in the districts in Gangnam (Gangnam, Seochu, and Songpa)
      are, respectively: Gangnam 527,641 / Seocho 393,270 /Songpa 646,970 . This totals 1,567,881 people for Gangnam in 2010.

      Given that the total population of Korea in 2010 was approximately 48,758,000 – this means Gangnam makes up 3.2% of the total population. This shows that a district that constitutes 3% of the national population made up 41% of the admittees to the most prestigious national university for the same year (which is shown in the Yonhap News map above). This is clear numerical evidence of incredible inequality by population proportion.

      Furthermore, as the articles I cite above show: Gangnam has at least 3 times the number of private educational institutions as other districts in Seoul – 3 times as many hagwons to prepare for university, and 3 times as many in other subjects and general fields. As most people know in Korea, hagwons makes an incredible difference in schooling success there.

      In addition, as the articles state, the government relocated elite schools from north of the river to Gangnam. The quality of schools differ greatly in Gangnam; again, the articles show just how the schools carefully prepare students with methods different from ordinary schools.

      Jay, you also stated:

      “Most of the headquarters for the conglomerates are actually in the central business district (CBD). I don’t know where you’re getting these facts from. The only notable chaebols in Gangnam are Samsung and Hyundai Motors, and the latter is located almost at the edge of Seoul, where it’s not at all associated with wealth. They moved there because the land was cheap.”

      Gangnam is not the CBD. However, as this article (one of many) shows, for 2010:
      Wealth Concentration in Gangnam Intensifies

      Samsung relocating to Gangnam has driven up wealth and spurred the moves of other companies to the area.

      “Gangnam now has more financial assets registered than Yeongdeungpo, which includes the banking district of Yeouido.” Therefore, Gangnam is actually holding more of the nation’s wealth than the CBD.

      “Almost 39.7 percent of stocks, bonds, investment funds and other assets in Seoul are registered in the three neighboring boroughs of Gangnam, Seocho and Songpa.”

      “Among a total of 512 branches of securities firms, 220 are located there.”

      “Many high-tech companies also have headquarters in the area, especially in the stretch along subway line 2 from Gangnam to Samseong Station. “

      Samsung Town, Posco Center, LG Gangnam Tower, Hynix, all of these buildings and centers contain part of the headquarters of these huge conglomerates (and these are among Korea’s top 10 corporations. Daum, Naver – Korea’s biggest internet portals, and Google are all in Teheran-ro in Gangnam.

      A May 2011 article (Here: also makes clear:
      “Foreign buyers are even staying away or trying to sell what they have in the Seoul CBD (which seems to be less popular than the newer and fully occupied Gangnam office district south of the river, or even the Yeouido Business District on the west side). Merrill Lynch is reported to have sold half its stake in the newly completed Center 1 office tower (the one with Mirae Asset’s name on the top), and Morgan Stanley struggled to sell the 35-year-old Seoul Square building which was once the headquarters of Daewoo.”

      Therefore, this is pointing to a somewhat more recent trend – of corporations moving away from CBD into Gangnam.

      Finally, Jay, I am curious to know if you are raising these questions to argue that Gangnam is not what many people have already agreed it is – the epicenter of wealth and privilege in South Korea.

      • Sukjong, I see you’ve done your research thoroughly in what is available in the English language. And your argument is more honed, to say that Gangnam is the epicenter of wealth, instead of “You have to live in Gangnam to be called rich,” which is clearly not true. The richest people live in small pockets in the north of the city or around Itaewon (where Samsung CEO Lee Kun-hee lives) OR these days in Pangyo, to the south of the capital. It’s just the image; your article overstated the significance of Gangnam.

        As a lifetime Seoul resident, reading some of your sources (on which you base your judgment) makes me wonder if they are totally trustworthy.

        But let me state my central argument again: Yes, I agree that Gangnam REPRESENTS wealth, but not to the extent that you make it out to be.

        Yes, there are many conglomerate branches in Gangnam but many of the HQs are still in Yeouido and CBD. You may have ignored the fact that virtually all the new Grade-A buildings in Seoul in the last year have gone up in downtown (CBD) and Yeouido, the financial center of Seoul — and not one in Gangnam. If prestige was a concern, why are developers building elsewhere? While the property prices of Gangnam (three districts you mentioned combined) are in general higher than anywhere else, when it comes to the Grade-A buildings, Yeouido and CBD can wield as high a price as Tehran-ro and others. (Btw, Daum is located in Hannam-dong, north of the river. Your research is riddled with holes.) Oh yes, Merrill and Morgan Stanley… why are they selling or struggling to sell? Because there are too many new buildings in CBD (Seoul Square is outside CBD, which makes it a moot point.) — But this also means that corporations are moving out of Gangnam, since the other two areas are now more attractive in price.

        So there’s the business side of it (I’m not arguing that Gangnam is a poor area, at all. You just go too far.)

        Let’s take a look at the education/residence side of it. Now you cite a source saying that there are at least three times as many private educational institutions (hagwon, from now) as anywhere else, but have we forgotten that you are talking about three different districts combined? How are they comparing it? Gangnam can denote every territory south of the river or the three districts. Yes, there are many hagwons there, but also in other places, like Mok-dong, another area concentrated with students. (Also south of the river, mea culpa.)

        Finally, you seem to have conveniently sidstepped a few of my questions, esp wrt the hip-hop scene, Hyundai HQ,

        I get it. You have done your research and feel like you know everything about Korea and the concentration of wealth here. That’s great, so just stick to the facts and statistics…

        And not throw out statements like “hip-hop is concentrated in Gangnam,” when you have nothing to back them up.

      • This article is quoted at “Gangnam” page of Wikipedia, which brought me here, and let me tell my opinion. Sorry in advance about my limited English.

        Firstly, you made a serious error on SNU part.

        Let’s be clear with the facts:
        The 2010 population in the districts in Gangnam (Gangnam, Seochu, and Songpa)
        are, respectively: Gangnam 527,641 / Seocho 393,270 /Songpa 646,970 . This totals 1,567,881 people for Gangnam in 2010.

        Given that the total population of Korea in 2010 was approximately 48,758,000 – this means Gangnam makes up 3.2% of the total population. This shows that a district that constitutes 3% of the national population made up 41% of the admittees to the most prestigious national university for the same year (which is shown in the Yonhap News map above). This is clear numerical evidence of incredible inequality by population proportion.

        The numbers in the map shows only “students from Seoul”, and the proportion each district make up of it. So, it means that Seoul produced 713 SNU goers and Gangnam-Seocho-Songpa makes up 41% of it. So you don’t have to bring “nationwide population” here. Actually SNU accepts about 3500-4000 students annually in total, not just 700 some. I’m not denying the fact that Gangnam 3 districts produces way higher per capita SNU goers. That’s for sure, no doubt, but anyway you’re way too much exaggerating the facts.

        As for “income disparity” part, it’s highly variable depending on sources. This 2011 source says Korea is around OECD average ( and it’s way newer than your 2008 source.

        I can go on but let me just tell you my point. More or less rich areas exist in every countries, every cities. Gangnam is for sure the symbol of wealth in Seoul and S.Korea but your article could force readers to think like “S.Korea and Seoul is a big poor shithole except for some tens of square miles”, which is obviously not true. Besides Gangnam, Yeouido area is the financial center, Gwanghwamun area is the business center, Hongdae, Jongno, Shinchon, Itaewon, Daehakro, etc are all entertainment centers, and rich neighbors like Hannamdong, Mokdong, Pyongchangdong, Sungbukdong, and many more so-called “new town” are everywhere in or near Seoul, and most importantly, Seoul doesn’t even have notable “slums” as US cities do. As a lifelong resident in a non-Gangnam area of Seoul, this article is honestly annoying. I highly doubt PSY even intended this kind of serious issues in the first place. Yoga? Every Kim and Lee do Yoga these days. Tennis is also a popular sport anyone can enjoy. Party bus? It’s more like a mid-low class culture among old ladies. The only actually luxury thing in PSY video was the red sports car Yoo Jae Suk drove, but hey luxury cars are like the most common props in any music videos.

        Why so serious? Do you even know PSY originally planned to release a Japanese version of this song “Roppongi Style” ?

  15. Great.. Nice post, i enjoy reading and learned more stuff about Gangnam style here..

  16. Hi Jay, thanks for your feedback. I agree with you – PSY Is not a revolutionary artist. He is not like MC Sniper or other hip hop artists in Korea who put a much sharper view on poverty and disparity in Korea.

    But on the question of Gangnam and its position within South Korea – I want to respond to your questions one by one. On the question of educational disparity, while Gangnam may be a district that has more people than other districts because parents strive to move there), it is not simply population density that drives the entrance into Seoul University. The number of private institutions (hagwon) and their role in preparing students for the entrance exam cannot be understated, and there has been much media coverage and scholarship on the issue of educational disparity with a focus on Gangnam. Entrance into Seoul University as well is a marker of success in Korea – Just a small sampling of this scholarship is below:

    Private Tutoring and Education Inequality

    English immersion and educational inequality in South Korea

    Geographical Features of Social Polarization in Seoul, South Korea

    The Changing Faces of Inequality in South Korea in the Age of Globalization

    From the news:
    Posh Seoul areas send more kids to top universities – Report shows nation’s best colleges filled with students from affluence

    Gangnam Fever by Prof. Andrei Lankov

    I will list additional sources on the other questions you raise soon.

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  29. I love this article. I always enjoyed the video for many different reasons but coming across this article and learning what it really is about and what it’S referencing makes it even better!! Thank you so much for explaining it.

    learning about other cultures and understanding what it’s about instead of going “this is wacky!”-then brushing it off- is a lot better. it’s not so random anymore, and adds a different level of humor now that I know what PSY is doing. it’s so great!

  30. Hi Suk Kyung, I found your comments here and also in Al Jazeera coverage very to the point. I am currently putting together a volume on K-pop politics. Would you like to have some conversations over coffee? Let me know.

    • HI Jungbong, do you live in New York? We can definitely have a conversation. You can contact me at to arrange.

  31. The video is fun to watch. As a Korean American I am happy to see Jaesang Park at the center and like his acknowledgement of Tupac and JayZ. I think “Gangnam Style” has some of the kind of appeal of such great ROK films as “The Host” – that is, high level production values like special effects in a popular genre (monster films/music videos) plus some social critique to ponder. But while I think “The Host” gives us layered and variegated or multicolored subversion, “Gangnam Style”‘s is kinda black and white. I for one would like to see more subversion of the “sexy lady” stuff.

    • Hello Elaine, I agree with you – for all the commentary on class, Gangnam Style leaves gender untouched – I do wonder if South Korea – or any country really – could produce or support a female PSY who would succeed in the same way – someone who does not lie within the standard beauty norm, is hilarious, loud and swaggering. I wished I could have brought this up on Al Jazeera – that this is yet another major aspect of Kpop and culture that needs to be critiqued and expanded – – the very restrictive messages they send about gender, beauty and femininity. I also really loved “The Host” – monster movies and sci-fi films seem to be great vehicles for telling these hidden stories and broadcasting seemingly small characters in society.

  32. Nice article. I just want to share some of my own experiences.

    I live in Seoul. I have a creative writing MFA from The New School. However, not being from Gangnam but from Gangseo (“west of the river”), I was always self-conscious when stating where I’m from–when asked by a fellow Korean student. Most would look at me with either a politely baffled or outright condescending look. People from Korea know specific neighborhood names in Gangnam whereas I had to give map directions to where I was from. Mind you, I’m from a well-to-do middle class family, but that doesn’t matter.

    Also, I would like to say that Seoul National University used to be a school where the smartest from any neighborhood could have a chance. Being a public school, a poor peasant’s son could get in and make his way to a “bigger dream.” Not so now. And, I have to wonder why all those wealthy kids need to go to a cheap school anyhow. One of my friends from Gangnam had private tutors for almost all of her courses. Even for French, which at the time only took up 10 questions in the college entrance exam. With that kind of support, do other kids not able to have 10 private tutors, or even 1, have a chance?

    • HI Soojin – thanks for sharing your experience. I sympathize with your experience. Gangnam is just 3 districts, and the rest of Seoul has so much more- but for the rest of Seoul to be seen as “Gangbuk” by Gangnam residents really speaks to how much separation there is between residents of one and the other.

      On your second point – I think this is a great question. My father, like many people in post-war Korea, grew up quite poor, but was able to attend Korea University. He loved studying and studied very hard to go. But I doubt he would be able to attend now. When I read the recent news about 60 parents, most in Gangnam, who paid around $90,000 dollars for fake international passports so their children could attend international schools in Seoul, I was not surprised, but definitely saddened. What is the educational system in Korea heading towards?

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  34. Hi Sukjong,

    I really liked your comments on The Stream and that led me back here (which I’d already read once), and I just want to do a double check on one of the stats you’ve cited before it gets too widely cited. I don’t think the above map is saying that 41% of all SNU entering students each year come from Gangnam (Gangnam-gu, Seocho-gu and Songpa-pu); it’s 41% of all the students from *Seoul* itself who enter SNU who come from those areas. We need to add in Gyeonggi-do, Busan, Daegu, Gyeongsang-do, etc. Not sure what that will take Gangnam down to on the national level. Obviously disproportionate, but not quite as striking as you state above.

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  45. I loved your article, but I wanted to drop in and say that I think Psy is revolutionary and more effective than most. Though other Korean artists might take a sharper view, Psy is intentionally comical and humorous, rather than sniping and aggressive. So, he goes viral. Everyone hears it. Many like it. His message is spread subtly and even, for some, subconsciously. This is a truly revolutionary strategy: to use the pop and money and party anthem vibe of the Gangnam area and then mix it with subtle social commentary. The early novels and love stories Pamela and Pride and Prejudice did more to change culture in Britain than any rules of Parliament. Psy isn’t “preaching to the choir.” Instead, his style allows him to speak to every one instead. My students today asked me to explain the video and its popularity to them. They listened attentively. They were excited and engaged. When I talked about the Occupy movement, their eyes glazed over. If you want a revolution, you’ve got to change the minds of many…

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  52. There is visibly a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in features also.

  53. Subliminals found in Gangnam Style. There’s more to it than what has been written about it so far:

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