The International Gangnam Style Phenomenon

Music videos aren’t usually, in my opinion, news worthy. But one video has gone so viral that it should probably now be described as a worldwide infection. It seems like everyone has caught the “PSY” bug, and this English-speaking Berklee-educated Korean pop star is now one of the most famous people in the world. The music video for his satirical song “Gangnam Style” has become the most watched video in the world, skyrocketing in popularity shortly after its release in the middle of July, and it’s now a global phenomenon.

Beating Bieber

Until November 24, Justin Bieber held the record for the most watched video in the world. But things changed.

The video, which contains satirical lyrics about the habits of wealthy South Koreans and features choreography mimicking horse riding, reached 805 million views on Nov. 24, while “Baby” had 803 million views, YouTube said in a posting on its Trends blog. The video is watched between 7 and 10 million times a day, the blog said. The hits have now increased to 824 million.

The popularity of the video has vaulted 34-year-old musician Park Jae Sang into fame under the pseudonym Psy, earning the rapper appearances on U.S. television programs including “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and NBC’s “Today Show.”

There are a lot of reasons why this video became famous, including the fact that it’s funny, it has a catchy dance move that’s not too difficult, and a cleverly simply chorus that’s easy for people of any language to say. There are also other reasons why the song is good, which have no bearing on its international popularity (e.g., the lyrics, which are basically the Korean equivalent to the English song “Beverly Hills,” by the popular American band Weezer).

But beyond that, I’m not going to analyze what makes the video popular because people like it for many different reasons. If you haven’t already seen the video, you can see for yourself what makes it so popular:

Whereas Justin Bieber’s “Baby” video still holds the record for the most disliked video on YouTube, one of Gangnam Style’s claim to fame is that its video has been enthusiastically parodied thousands of times. In fact, PSY is not getting anywhere near the negative attention that Bieber received for his video, which is why almost all of PSY’s fame is entirely positive.

The song is currently ranked either #1 or #2 in at least ten countries, breaking tons of records around the world. The most impressive thing about this feat is the fact that all the verses of his song are sung entirely in Korean. People just don’t seem to care. What seems to be more important is that the chorus – “Hey sexy lady… Gangnam Style” –  is in English.

Another Korean star, Hyuna – who appeared in the original video – came out with a Duet where she and PSY sing half of the song each.

Another video quietly rising in popularity from the Gangnam Style train is the dance routine performed by the Korean dance group “Waveya.” When I watched PSY’s music video for the first time, I didn’t think you could take those silly dance moves and ever turn it into something even remotely sexy, but leave it to Korean dancers to prove me wrong:

Meanwhile, in Japan…

To be honest, I’m very surprised that PSY is not popular in Japan. It just goes to show that you can never ever tell what’s going to be popular here. In general, K-pop (Korean pop) has a huge fanbase in Japan, which is why some Korean stars focus almost all their attention in Japan rather than Korea.

And it’s not an issue of ignorance – most young Japanese people know about this video; it’s just that no one seems to give it a second thought. Everyone here I talked to just made it sound like every other obscure music video that comes and goes on YouTube. But it’s not.

Lots of blogs and news reports have been saying that Japan is probably snubbing PSY for some political reasons with Japanese-Korean relations, but I don’t buy that explanation. On top of the fact that the average consumer in Japan is not particularly politically aware,  that kind of thing should have – but hasn’t – affected other K-pop sales.

The best explanation I can come up with is that PSY doesn’t look like the type of sex symbol that Japanese consumers (i.e., 16 year-old girls – the same demographic that made Bieber a household name) have grown to know and love. But I still think there’s more to it than that.

Ultimately, I just can’t understand why it lacks popularity here. But Kotaku has several interesting ideas:

Japan hasn’t been adverse to Korean pop music. It’s been quite the contrary, actually. Back in 2010, Korean pop was all over the place, with both female and male Korean groups popping up on Japanese television and touring the country.

This was more than a passing fad, and the influx of Korean stars in the Japanese pop culture landscape seemed like it would be beneficial for relations. It wasn’t that these Korean singers and actors were talented. They also were learning Japanese—with some of them showing quite impressive language skills—and showing an interest in the country.

Because of this, the Japanese public has come to expect Japanese language versions of K-pop hits. English speaking singers get a free pass, perhaps, because Japanese people all study English in school (or, more likely, because of the cultural dominance the language has). The Korean language, however, doesn’t get that free pass, for a variety or reasons both cultural and historical.

They mention that he already appeared on Japanese TV in July, but did not have the same reaction most famous K-pop stars receive.

Gangnam Style” has attractive women in the video, but PSY is not handsome. For the Japanese, he probably looks more like some comedian, so people might wonder what the fuss is over the song. Japan has its own ironic music acts (Kishidan, anyone?), but PSY doesn’t quite fit into the current Korean construct the country. PSY, however, probably could eventually hit it big in Japan, especially if tensions between Korea and Japan calm down. NicoNico News did a story about Japanese people talking about the song on Twitter, so there is probably interest. But, it will also take the Japanese mass media to ensure that the song explodes by having PSY pop up in commercials, variety shows, music shows—you name it.

If he gets the same push that other Korean artists previously got in Japan, his music will go supernova. Rightly or wrongly, that’s Japan style. But like that matters little when the song is already taking over the world.

I agree that more of a marketing push would probably get him acceptance in Japan. I feel like sometimes popularity and trends in Japan are nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s popular because it’s good – it’s good because it’s popular. How do you know it’s good? Because you’ve heard of it. And if you’ve heard of it, that means it’s popular.

But the funny thing is that PSY has shown that he doesn’t even need Japan. Considering that he could stop performing today and he’d already go down in history, it’s clear that he doesn’t need the Japanese market.

The Bottom Line

Soon enough, PSY will be the first person to create a video that was seen a billion times. While you must remind yourself that this does NOT mean that a billion people saw the video (I’ve seen it plenty of times myself), that is still incredible. A billion hits.

It won’t be long now.

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One Response to The International Gangnam Style Phenomenon

  1. Jamal Kanoy says:

    Psy likened the Gangnam District to Beverly Hills, California, and said in an interview that he intended in a twisted sense of humour by claiming himself to be “Gangnam Style” when everything about the song, dance, looks, and the music video is far from being such a high class.`^

    All the best

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