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In this photo taken on Sept. 14, 2012, South Korean rapper PSY performs his massive K-pop hit "Gangnam Style" live on NBC's "Today" show in New York. His "Gangnam Style" video has more than 200 million YouTube views and counting, and it's easy to see why. Gangnam is only a small slice of Seoul, but it inspires a complicated mixture of desire, envy and bitterness. It's also the spark for PSY's catchy, world-conquering song. (AP Photo/Invision via AP Images, Jason DeCrow)

With a hip thrust and a pony hop, K-pop star Psy has found his way into our collective consciousness with his music video sensation "Gangnam Style."

In the past month, the tuxedo-clad South Korean artist has performed his megahit and accompanying hip-hop horse dance on "Ellen," "Today," and "Saturday Night Live." The video has been viewed on YouTube 200 million times and inspired numerous parodies.

Sure, the tune is catchy. And the images of Psy and his sexy backup dancers are lavish. But, K-pop, the infectious blend of South Korean hip-hop and electropop, has been around for decades. So why are fans gaga over "Gangnam"?

"I think it's because the song and video are funny and almost ridiculous," says Robert Kojima, 18, of Berkeley, who also follows K-pop's Big Bang and SNSD. "But it's also different from most K-pop, because it has a mature message. Most K-pop is sort of fluff, more eye candy."

As it turns out, the opening track on Park "Psy" Jae-sang's sixth album is a social commentary on life in Gangnam, an affluent neighborhood in Seoul where trust funds are as common as credit cards.

Between opulent scenes and multiple tuxedo changes, Psy is winking at us as from behind those black shades, singing about wanting "a classy lady who can afford a relaxing cup of coffee."


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As U.S.-based Korean blogger Jea Kim recently explained on her site, My Dear Korea, "In Korea, there's a joke poking fun at women who eat 2,000-won (about $2) ramen for lunch and then spend 6,000 won on Starbucks coffee. They're called Doenjangnyeo, or soybean paste women, for their propensity to crimp on essentials so they can overspend on conspicuous luxuries, of which coffee is, believe it or not, one of the most common."

It's easy to forget that even as songs entertain us, they also are ways of communicating ideas and tensions about society, says pop culture critic Oliver Wang.

"I think it's brilliant that what most non-Korean-speakers think is some kind of over-the-top music video is actually, itself, a subversive critique of over-the-top upper class mores," says Wang, a sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach.

But the vast majority of fans driving the song's popularity don't speak Korean. They just love the beat.

"It's like the K-pop version of (LMFAO's) "Party Rock Anthem," says John Change, 21, of Berkeley. "It's got all the elements of a great hip-hop song, the bass, the drums, and building tension to the chorus."

And that dance?

"I've been known to bust out the moves with my friends," says Jen Ziang, 25, of Fremont. "It's just so cheesy you can't help but do it."