The song "Gangnam Style" (a former Mental Health Break), performed by Korean pop-artist Park Jaesang (aka Psy), has become a world-wide sensation, racking up 52 million views on YouTube in just over a month. Back home, however, the song has a hidden message, as Max Fisher explains:
Gangnam is a tony Seoul neighborhood, and Park's "Gangnam Style" video lampoons its self-importance and ostentatious wealth, with Psy playing a clownish caricature of a Gangnam man. That alone makes it practically operatic compared to most K-Pop. But I spoke with two regular observers of Korean culture to find out what I was missing, and it turns out that the video is rich with subtle references that, along with the song itself, suggest a subtext with a surprisingly subversive message about class and wealth in contemporary South Korean society. That message would be awfully mild by American standards — this is no "Born in the U.S.A." — but South Korea is a very different place, and it's a big deal that even this gentle social satire is breaking records on Korean pop charts long dominated by cotton candy.
The subtext includes such themes as Korea's massive credit card debt, the country's trust-funders, and their adoring poseurs. And then there's the focus on coffee:
Psy boasts that he's a real man who drinks a whole cup of coffee in one gulp, for example, insisting he wants a woman who drinks coffee. "I think some of you may be wondering why he's making such a big deal out of coffee, but it's not your ordinary coffee," U.S.-based Korean blogger Jea Kim wrote at her site, My Dear Korea. (Her English-subtitled translation of the video is [here].) "In Korea, there's a joke poking fun at women who eat 2,000-won (about $2) ramen for lunch and then spend 6,000 won on Starbucks coffee." They're called Doenjangnyeo, or "soybean paste women" for their propensity to crimp on essentials so they can over-spend on conspicuous luxuries, of which coffee is, believe it or not, one of the most common.