Americans can't get enough of the bizarre hit "Gangnam Style" by Korean pop star PSY. It has 53 million Youtube hits as of this writing, it's the first K-pop single to top the iTunes video charts, and every news organization from The Washington Post to Time is gushing over it. But, as they do with most K-pop songs, Western listeners are hilariously mishearing its lyrics. As The Atlantic's Max Fisher noted, the refrain "oppa Gangnam style" is a clever jab at Seoul's rich and idle. But the reference seems lost on all the listeners who think PSY is saying "open condom style," which makes no sense, but sounds like a bad idea nonetheless. Folks on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and other meme factories are already mining the mondegreen for LOLs.
For those unfamiliar with the term, mondegreens are basically nonsensical, humorous phrases born from mishearing lyrics. You probably know some of the genre's classics. Paul McCartney's stab at French on "Michelle" is often mondegreenized as "Sunday monkey won't play piano song." Does Jimi Hendrix want to "kiss the sky" or "kiss this guy?" Recently, The New York Times ran a piece on the latest entry in the mondegreen cannon: "fanute," French Montana's unintelligible first utterance on Rick Ross' "Stay Schemin."
"Open condom style" is hardly K-pop's first mondegreen. Korea's earworms are tricky, because they often switch between English, Korean, and pure nonsense. So some of the words you think you're mishearing you might actually be hearing correctly, but the words you think you recognize for sure might be mondegreens. Take, for instance, "I got your linen, run away." Surely, that's not the real chorus to Super Junior's "Spy," but once you hear it, you can't hear anything else. It's hard not to imagine the group Infinite singing, "We got the orange juice, yeah!" in their effervescent single "The Chaser." Are Big Bang giving a shout-out to the First Family on "Fantastic Baby?" This snippet sure sounds like "Michelle, Barack, hey!" Then there's "we can buy some lunch at the motel," "hands up pie brain," "mice on the phone," and so, so many others.
The K-pop industrial complex has given rise to an online cottage industry of Tumblrs and Youtube accounts tracking K-Pop mondegreens. Clearly, the people behind these operations love the music, and aren't simply making fun of a foreign language. After all, mondegreens make fun of language by transcending it—we register them on an entirely different plane of subconsciousness silliness.
As "Gangnam Style" continues to make waves in America, we're sure to see a slew of K-pop think pieces flowing in from all sides. If K-pop really is taking root in the west after years of trying, we say great! Bring on the spunky, choreographed anthems, and the hilarious mondegreens that come with them.