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Gangnam Style: How a quirky South Korean hip-hop artist conquered the world

Gangnam Style, a peculiar South Korean hip-hop video that lampoons a trendy district in Seoul, has become an unlikely global hit.

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He attributed his success to "soul or attitude."

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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.

"People in America are comfortable with Asian guys who look like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, who are good-looking, but they're not the equivalent of Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves," Kim said.

Part of the initial interest in "Gangnam Style," Kim said, was a kind of "freak-show mentality, where people are like, 'This guy is funny.' But then you look at his choreography and you realize that you really have to know how to dance to do what he does. He's really good."

THE SONG:

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.

"PSY looks like a country bumpkin. He's a far cry from the so-called 'Gangnam Style,'" Baak said. "He's parodying himself."

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.

PSY's character in the video is modeled on the clueless heroes of movies like "The Naked Gun" and "Dumb & Dumber," he told Yonhap news agency earlier this year. He has also said his goal is to "dress classy, but dance cheesy."

Others see more than just a goofy outsider.

"PSY does something in his video that few other artists, Korean or otherwise, do: He parodies the wealthiest, most powerful neighborhood in South Korea," writes Sukjong Hong, creative nonfiction fellow at Open City, an online magazine.

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