Rapper rides Gangnam to fame

Nouveau riche in South Korean enclave stung by hit video

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SEOUL — South Korean rapper PSY’s “Gangnam Style” video has 221 million YouTube views and counting, and it’s easy to see why. No Korean language skills are needed to enjoy the chubby, massively entertaining performer’s crazy horse-riding dance, the song’s addictive chorus and the video’s exquisitely odd series of misadventures.

Beneath the antic, funny surface of his world-conquering song, however, is a sharp social commentary about the country’s newly rich and Gangnam, the affluent district where many of them live. Gangnam is only a small slice of Seoul, but it inspires a complicated mixture of desire, envy and bitterness.

Here’s a look at the meaning of “Gangnam Style” — and at the man and neighborhood behind the sensation:

The place

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.

Enlarge Photo

People stream into a street near Gangnam Station in Seoul. About 1 ... more >

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

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.

Gangnam inspires both envy and distaste,” said Kim Zakka, a Seoul-based pop music critic. “Gangnam residents are South Korea’s upper class, but South Koreans consider them self-interested, with no sense of noblesse oblige.”

In a sly, entertaining way, PSY’s song pushes these cultural buttons.

The guy

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

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