Gangnam Style Isn’t Just a Video—Let’s Visit the Neighborhood!

By Sasha Ingber

It is now official: Gangnam Style has penetrated every nook and cranny of the Planet Earth and is probably rocketing out to Neptune and beyond.

“Gangnam Style” is the name of a pop song by the South Korean singer Psy. He sings about “a guy whose heart bursts when the night comes.” The video for the song shows Psy going to a club, dancing like he’s riding a horse, and observing women doing yoga. In rhythm to the catchy beat, the scenes shift from a sauna to a tour bus to a parking garage. The video has received more than 440 million views on Youtube, reached the top of China’s download list, topped the charts in Britain, and has been the number two most popular song on Billboard’s Hot 100 for five weeks in a row. As if that’s not enough, Psy himself visited the U.N. this week and taught one of the song’s dance moves to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Together, they rode invisible horses.

And of course there are versions of the video from SNL, North Korean propagandists and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei.

As a magazine of geography, we were interested in finding out about Gangnam: Where (and what) is it? Gangnam means “south of the river” in Korean. It’s a ritzy district that lies just below the Han river in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. To gain more insights into Gangam style, we spoke with a few former residents of Seoul.

1.     “Gangnam is Wall Street, Cape Cod, and Beverly Hills all wrapped into one,” says former English teacher Jake Fisher. The chic restaurants and sophisticated shopping leave many Koreans aspiring to live there and, according to Fisher, to have “a certain amount of hatred and envy” for the people who do.

2.     While the neighborhood’s subway stations didn’t make it into the music video, Gangnam Station, with glowing flat screen TVs and departure boards in every direction, was high-tech enough to be featured in The Bourne Legacy.

3.     Want to email someone or take a photo of yourself? Searching for a certain clothing store? Look for one of the many columns with touch screens and webcams along Gangnam’s streets. The stores and restaurants may be expensive but the wired columns are free!

4.     Old buildings are rapidly being replaced by sleek, tall buildings to relieve the real estate crunch. Across from the COEX mall featured in the video sits one of the oldest Buddhist temple complexes in Korea, Bongeunsa Temple, where visitors can meditate, drink tea, and admire lanterns.

5.     Gangnam’s nightlife often unfolds in clubs with nostalgic names—Harlem Night Club, Woodstock Bar, Club Eden. Partiers can stay up all night with the “freedom of a cup of coffee” that Psy raps about, but the joke in South Korea is that the so-called “soybean paste women” will buy soybean paste soup, the cheapest of lunches, so that they can afford expensive indulgences like Starbucks coffee (a size “tall” is $3.55 in South Korea, compared to $1.93 in the United States).

6.     The video shows a stable full of horses, but Gangnam itself isn’t an equestrian center. “Riding is a sport of the rich and privileged in Seoul, so that could be why so many horses were depicted in the music video,” says former high school teacher and tutor Dianne Kim.

7.     Missing from the video: the plastic surgery clinics of Gangnam. According to physician Jean Kim, who visits family in Gangnam, plastic surgery is booming in Seoul. One common procedure involves clipping the skin around the corners of the eyes so that they appear more round.

8.  Beware the “Gangnam Stare.” Former English instructor Benjamin Yannuzzi and his fellow teachers note that pedestrians often walk purposefully but don’t look anybody in the eye—they tend to stare straight ahead as if lost in thought. Does rapper Psy do the stare? You can’t tell from the video—he’s always wearing sunglasses or goggles. Must be Gangnam style.


Human Journey