The real meaning of Gangnam Style

The brilliant Stevie Wonder once described music as "a world within itself, with a language we all understand." In 2012, that language was Korean. That year, South Korean rapper and singer Psy released a K-Pop masterpiece that conquered the internet: "Gangnam Style." Accompanied by a music video best described as a kaleidoscope of comedy and craziness, "Gangnam Style" didn't just go viral; it reached global-pandemic levels of infectiousness. As of this writing, the video on Psy's official YouTube channel has more than 3.4 billion views. Obviously, that means the song spoke to a lot of people, but did they all understand what Psy was really saying?

If you live in South Korea or are intimately familiar with the culture, the video's intention might be glaringly obvious. But for people who lack that context, at first blush and maybe at three billionth blush, "Gangnam Style" might just seem entertaining on a purely superficial level. 

The opulent style of Gangnam, South Korea

In the video, you see Psy chilling at the beach, being blasted by a blizzard, dancing on a speedboat, getting rowdy on a bus, jamming on the toilet, and walking away from an explosion. He wears a snazzy tux, looks like a million bucks, and dances like he's riding one of the invisible horses from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." What meaning can you possibly glean from that?

The Atlantic explains that "Gangnam Style" is a satire that sinks its teeth into materialism. Its title derives from Seoul, South Korea's Gangnam neighborhood, where wealthy, arrogant residents flaunt their good fortune in poor taste. Korean-American consultant Adrian Hong elaborated on the issue, remarking, "Koreans have been kind of caught up in this spending to look wealthy, and Gangnam has really been the leading edge of that. "I think a lot of what [Psy] is pointing out is how silly that is. The whole video is about him thinking he's a hotshot but then realizing he's just, you know, at a children's playground, or thinking he's playing polo or something and realizes he's on a merry-go-round."