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October 19, 2012

'Gangnam Style' tells economic truth of our day

TOKYO — It isn't every day that the finance minister of a major nation mentions a rap star when talking up his economy. But then South Korea isn't your average economy and Psy isn't your usual entertainer.

Bahk Jae-wan did that in an Oct. 9 interview. South Korea's top economic official cited the singer of the global smash hit "Gangnam Style" as an example of the kind of creativity and international competitiveness the country needs. It wasn't a laugh line. It was a plea for South Koreans to let their hair down and dream a bit.

It is something I had been wondering as "Gangnam Style" racks up hundreds of millions of hits on YouTube; earns Psy gigs on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and NBC's "Today Show"; works its way into North Korea's propaganda; and single-handedly strengthens South Korea's global brand. I'm a fan.



But face it, it isn't a particularly brilliant song. Nor would many say Psy (whose name is Park Jae-sang) is a world-class singer, dancer or stage presence. So how did a man who is relatively ancient by South Korea's pubescent pop standards do what no one had done before — go global?

The reason has more to do with economics than meets the eye and speaks volumes about where South Korea finds itself in 2012.

Before his song went global, it swept through South Korea's 50 million-strong population. Sure, the tune is catchy and his crazed horse-riding dance is a show-stopper. But its real appeal is the social satire that lies not very far below the surface. Gangnam is a ritzy part of Seoul that South Koreans see as an amalgam of Beverly Hills, Manhattan's Upper East Side and Tokyo's Shibuya district. It is South Korea's 1 percent enclave.

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