Discovering Psy’s Gangnam

“Oppa is Gangnam style
Gangnam style”

In 2012, Psy turned into an instant YouTube sensation with the catchy song, “Gangnam Style“. And even if, very few truly understood what or what about he was singing; Gangnam would soon become Seoul’s top tourist draw. Back then, neither the beat nor lyrics particularly appealed to me and I couldn’t understand the need for the repeated attention it got. An internet search revealed the song was a parody of one of the hippest districts in Seoul.

In Psy’s words,

“People who are actually from Gangnam never proclaim that they are—it’s only the posers and wannabes that put on these airs and say that they are “Gangnam Style”—so this song is actually poking fun at those kinds of people who are trying very hard to be something that they’re not.”

Source: Wikipedia

While the song garnered global attention and put Gangnam on the global map; for me, it failed to draw attention to what it was trying to say and became a parody in itself. Although, I did try dancing to the steps of the song (guided by Basil’s Korean colleague) — with mismatched hand and leg movements — at a friend’s wedding. Gangnam Style, parody or not, still wasn’t happening for me.

In 2015, on my first trip to Seoul, we managed to squeeze in a visit to Gangnam — at the end of our trip. I felt it was a glitzy, busy neighbourhood with a fantastic underground shopping centre. But, I still couldn’t get what the parody was about.

A year later, we moved to Seoul. During the first few months, as we hunted for apartments, we became more aware of the famous neighbourhoods in Seoul. Gangnam with its sprawling business centers, cosmetic clinics, book stores, vegan cafes, pubs, language exchanges, and plethora of coffee shops was high on any expat’s list. Finally, Psy’s song slowly seemed to make more sense. Eventually, we chose to live on the opposite side, in a relatively quiet area, due to it’s proximity to the business district Basil’s work place was located in. Reaching Gangnam involves a 45 minute or longer subway ride for me. So, I think, I might have visited it only 4 or 5 times in the past year.

To truly get a feel for Gangnam and its much talked about style, you need to take a walk around. On a warm summer’s day with blue skies and powder puff clouds; each building facade transforms into a mirror of Gangnam’s core philosophy — upscale, modern Seoul.

The COEX, Convention and Exhibition Centre is a sprawling complex perfect for business conferences and exhibitions. Walking inside the maze of connecting floors and conference rooms can be quite intimidating. Although, it won’t be hard spotting a coffee shop — located conveniently — to take a break from all the walking.

The Hyundai Department Store can be accessed from COEX or the main street. If you’re a shopper, you’d probably enjoy window shopping or salivating at the food stores. After a point — I needed to walk outside.

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Flowering Structure by Frank Stella

Trillion Tower : In Commemoration of 1 Trillion Dollars in Trade

The exhibits in front of the famous buildings, in Gangnam, are as eye-catching as the buildings themselves.

Bongeunsa Temple (Seoul) is not what Psy had in mind when he sang ‘Gangnam Style‘. Tucked in the jungle of steel skyscrapers and superficial vanity; it takes some effort finding this quiet temple. On my fourth visit, I had good friend, Shelley (Travel-Stained) to show me around this old gem.

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Five years later, I think, I can understand what he was trying to say. I still don’t like the lyrics or the tune. But, I can safely say: I’ve got a fair idea of what Gangnam and its style is.

25 responses to “Discovering Psy’s Gangnam

  1. I had no idea about any of that, Cheryl! What an informative post. I did like the song, but I think it had more to do with the friends & events here that were occurring at that time.

  2. When I went to Seoul twice last summer (on the way to and from Ulan Baatar), Shelley gave me the advice to stay in Gangnam on one end of the trip and Gangbuk on the other. It was a great idea, and I loved seeing the differences between this newer, glitzier part of the city and the older, more traditional part. My favorite part of Gangnam was Bongeunsa Temple and the contrast it made with its tall, shiny neighbors. In just a few days, it’s hard to say which part I liked better, but I think it’s great that you had two awesome parts of town to choose from! (I do get a kick out of Psy’s song – literally almost, haha – but of course I had no idea what it was actually saying!)

    • Shelley gives the best advice on Seoul! She’s such an amazing person! I don’t even know half the places here. 🙂 I remember reading your post on your visit to Seoul. While we were walking inside Bongeunsa Temple (last year), both of us thought of you and your post. 🙂 I think, I like the older, traditional part of Seoul and my friends tease me because I stay in quite the opposite neighbourhood. Haha! I guess I’m a contradiction of sorts. I must admit his song was catchy and crazy in some way! 🙂

  3. Gangnam was a big phenomena that died as a fad. The buildings are quite like business districts in any other city. I really like those exhibits…they lend it a unique feel about the place.
    I enjoy these virtual tours of S Korea! 🙂

  4. Fascinating read. I had no idea what the lyrics meant till now and amazingly didn’t know I’d even been in Gangnam until I spotted your reference to Bonguensa Temple!

    • Honestly, I didn’t either. 🙂 I looked up the translation, watched the video again, and it all just seemed to click. I didn’t even know he was singing oppa (a term used by some Korean women to address their boyfriends which also means older brother) is Gangnam style. So, interpreting the lyrics, he’s trying to woo the girl by saying he’s got “Gangnam Style”!
      Gangnam-gu (district) covers a larger number of attractions and a couple more subway stations. It’s a little confusing because of the subway station named Gangnam. And Bonguensa Temple lies a couple of stations further. 🙂 I’m learning more about Seoul as I post.

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