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oppan gangnam style

What is ‘Gangnam Style’? 2012′s biggest viral phenomenon, explained

It’s the most ‘liked’ video in YouTube history. But what does it all mean? Hayley Millar is here to help.


Korean pop star Psy’s hit Gangnam Style has become the biggest viral phenomenon since Call Me Maybe – in fact, it’s bigger. Everyone from Britney Spears to Ellen DeGeneres to this guy’s mum has been learning the dance. And it’s had more than 280 million views on YouTube, where it is the most ‘liked’ video in the site’s history.

Still confused? Hayley Millar, an Irish woman teaching English in Korea, is here to explain…

I REALLY DON’T know just how huge the Gangnam Style phenomenon is in other parts of the world. I’ve read that Psy (pronounced “sigh”) has been making appearances on TV shows across the US, and that the song has become the first ever K-pop tune to reach number one on the iTunes chart. I’m guessing you’ve heard of it, then, maybe?

If you’re in Korea, on the other hand, my question would be something more along the lines of “Hey, can you think back to what life was like before Gangnam Style? Can you remember the last time you went an entire day without hearing it or seeing someone post yet another parody of it on Facebook?” Seriously. Korea – already slightly on the nutty side – has gone absolutely bonkers over this song.

First, the story. Gangnam is a somewhat swanky district in Seoul, where clothes are even shinier and hair is even more coiffed than usual. Psy is a decidedly non-Gangnam style character who is using the normally cutesy and fluffy medium of K-pop to take the piss out of Korea’s obsession with appearance, and the high level of conspicuous consumption that exists here as a result.


They even have a name for the girls who cut their spending on basic essentials (like, y’know, food) in order to spend a small fortune on luxury items or vanity products. Such a woman is called a Doenjangnyeo – “Doenjang Girl/Woman” – Doenjang jjigae being one of the cheapest meals you can buy in Korea. The idea is that she will survive on this, or cheap ramen, but buy the most expensive coffee drinks at Starbucks. That kind of thing. Image is important here – apparently even more so in Gangnam.

So anyway, enter Psy with his satirical take on the issue, hilarious music video, ridiculous dance, and far-too-catchy tune, and you’ve got an international superstar. He’s saying that he is, in fact, “Gangnam style” – his refrain is “Oppan Gangnam Style!”. “Oppa” is what females call older male friends (names aren’t used very often), and literally means “big brother”.

Psy is referring to himself as he sings about how he is the guy for these Gangnam Style girls. Oppan Gangnam Style! = “Big Brother is Gangnam Style!” The video shows him in a number of the places associated with wealth and luxury in Korea, only to then reveal that it’s an illusion and he’s really somewhere unexciting and plain. We see him lazing decadently on a fancy beach, for example, only for the camera to pan out and show that he’s actually in a sandpit in a playground.

Spontaneous dancing

I admit, I totally dismissed this song as catchy but annoying K-pop cheese when it first started assaulting my eardrums wherever I went. Only when I started actually paying attention to the video and reading up on the meaning behind the weirdness did I start to appreciate how clever it is. And it is pretty damn funny even without the background knowledge!

Over the past few weeks, the craze has become… well, crazier. I literally hear this song at least five times a day, whether blasting from shops, or being sung by a student or colleague, or in another video posted on Facebook, or in pubs and restaurants. I have stopped trying to fight it.

I have to confess that I’ve gone from finding it intensely annoying to actually rather liking it.

And everyone, love it or hate it, is in its power. There’s absolutely nothing you can do but join in when he pauses and then announces “Oppan Gangnam Style!” – it’s like we’re all under a spell. I was in a convenience store with a friend the other day while the song was playing (probably on a loop, I don’t know how else it’s possible that I hear it everywhere I go), and we actually paused our conversation to declare “Oppan Gangnam Style!” and promptly launch into the instantly recognisable dance that follows. No one even batted an eyelid. In fact, a couple of Korean guys joined in.

An existence without Gangnam Style as the constant background track is now pretty much unfathomable to me. It is just Always There. So, in case you haven’t been exposed to it, allow me to share. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Psy.

Heyyyyyy… sexy lady! Oh, oh, oh, oh – oppan Gangnam Style!


Hayley Millar makes a living as an English teacher in South Korea, and spends the rest of her time writing about the ups and downs (and regular confusion) of living abroad. She blogs at Coffee Helps, where this post originally appeared.

Read more from Hayley here>

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