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Decoding the money message of Psy's 'Gangnam Style'

PSY performs during the '2006 Pentaport Rock Festival' in Incheon, South Korea.

Kai Ryssdal: A moment now for what I'll grant you in advance is a bit of cognitive dissonance. A discourse on materialism, pop music and Korean income inequality.

There's a music video that's blowing up on YouTube right now -- you might be one of the 75 million people who's clicked on it -- or you might have heard it on the radio in Korean. It's called "Gangnam Style" by the Korean pop sensation Psy.

It's exactly the kind of silliness that you might expect to go viral on YouTube, but Marketplace's Queena Kim says there's serious stuff inside.


Queena Kim: Paul Kim is a Korean-American comedian in Los Angeles who’s still trying to wrap his head around the popularity of Gangnam Style. He says he was driving the other day and heard it on a mainstream radio station.

Paul Kim: After Usher and before Jay-Z. And they played Gangnam style all in Korean. My wife and I was like, what is going on right now?

“Gangnam” is a wealthy enclave in Seoul. It’s like Beverly Hills meets Las Vegas. Rich 20-something guys dress up in ostentatious tuxes blow thousands of dollars at night clubs. And image-conscious women shop at some of the world’s most luxurious boutiques. In the video, Psy rides his imaginary horse through the decadence and he’s always surrounded by hot women.

Sukjong Hong: If it was a song about bling, it wouldn’t be appealing to me.

Sukjong Hong is an Korean-American writer and says Gangnam Style is a sly satire.

Hong: But as a song that really pokes fun at tropes of the wealthy, I feel like it has a double meaning.

Hong says, “Gangnam Style” is send-up of American hip-hop, where a common conceit is for rappers to boast about their neighborhoods.

"Straight Outta Compton": Straight Outta Compton! A brother with a finger on the trigger.

But while rappers offer a commentary on urban poverty, but Psy, who’s from Gangnam, is commenting on his ‘hood’s over-the-top consumption. Gangnam represents about 3 percent of the country population but...

Hong: In June 2010, 40 percent of Seouls registered assets were concentrated in Gangnam.

Kyeyong Park is a professor in the East Asian Studies department at UCLA. And she says the growing income inequality is creating an Occupy-like conversation in Korea.

Kyeyoung Park: One percent of people, they occupy the wealth and what about the 99 percent?

Well the 99 percent, they sure like Psy. Hit it.

"Gangnam Style": Gangnam style!

I’m Queena Kim for Marketplace.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.
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“Gangnam” is a wealthy enclave in Seoul. It’s like Beverly Hills meets Las Vegas. Rich 20-something guys dress up in ostentatious tuxes blow thousands of dollars at night clubs. And image-conscious women shop at some of the world’s most luxurious boutiques. In the video, Psy rides his imaginary horse through the decadence and he’s always surrounded by hot women.

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