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Gangnam Style: So where exactly is Gangnam?

IBNLive.com
Oct 10, 2012 at 11:48am IST

New Delhi: Gangnam is the most coveted address in Korea, but less than two generations ago it was little more than some forlorn homes surrounded by flat farmland and drainage ditches.

The district of Gangnam, which literally means "south of the river," is about half the size of Manhattan. About 1 percent of Seoul's population lives there, but many of its residents are very rich. The average Gangnam apartment costs about $716,000, a sum that would take an average South Korean household 18 years to earn.

The seats of business and government power in Seoul have always been north of the Han River, in the neighborhoods around the royal palaces, and many old-money families still live there.

Gangnam Style: So where exactly is Gangnam?

The district of Gangnam, which literally means "south of the river," is about half the size of Manhattan.

Gangnam, however, is new money, the beneficiary of a development boom that began in the 1970s.

As the price of high-rise apartments skyrocketed during a real estate investment frenzy in the early 2000s, landowners and speculators became wealthy practically overnight. The district's rich families got even richer.

The new wealth drew the trendiest boutiques and clubs and a proliferation of plastic surgery clinics, but it also provided access to something considered vital in modern South Korea: top-notch education in the form of prestigious private tutoring and prep schools. Gangnam households spend nearly four times more on education than the national average.

The notion that Gangnam residents have risen not by following the traditional South Korean virtues of hard work and sacrifice, but simply by living on a coveted piece of geography, irks many. The neighborhood's residents are seen by some as monopolizing the country's best education opportunities, the best cultural offerings and the best infrastructure, while spending big on foreign luxury goods to highlight their wealth.

More mainstream K-Pop performers, already famous in South Korea and across Asia, have tried and failed to crack the American market.

PSY, whose stage name stems from the first three letters of the word psycho, has always styled himself as a quirky outsider. But he is from a wealthy family and was actually raised and educated south of the Han River, near Gangnam.

He's an excellent dancer, a confident rapper and he's funny, but another reason for his breakthrough could be that less-than-polished image, said Jae-Ha Kim, a Chicago Tribune pop culture columnist and former music critic.

South Korean music has scored big in Asia with bands featuring handsome, stylish, makeup-wearing young men, including Super Junior and Boyfriend. But seeing such singers "makes some Americans nervous," Kim said.

PSY, at times wearing sleeveless dress shirts with painted-on untied bowties, repeatedly flouts South Koreans' popular notions of Gangnam in his video.

Instead of cavorting in nightclubs, he parties with retirees on a disco-lighted tour bus. Instead of working out in a high-end health club, he lounges in a sauna with two tattooed gangsters. As he struts along with two beautiful models, they're pelted in the face with massive amounts of wind-blown trash and sticky confetti. The throne from which he delivers his hip-hop swagger is a toilet.

The song explores South Koreans' "love-hate relationship with Gangnam," said Baak Eun-seok, a pop music critic. The rest of South Korea sees Gangnam residents as everything PSY isn't, he said: good-looking because of plastic surgery, stylish because they can splurge on luxury goods, slim thanks to yoga and personal trainers.

The video abounds with ironic, "not upper-class" images that ordinary South Koreans recognize, said Park Byoung-soo, a social commentator who runs a popular visual art blog. Old men play a Korean board game and middle-age women wear wide-brimmed hats to keep the sun off their faces as they walk backward — a popular way to exercise in South Korea.

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