When the K-pop industry first set out to crack the lucrative Western market, it’s unlikely that Psy was the figure they had in mind. At 34, he was a relative old-timer when “Gangnam Style” was released, and he had neither the squeaky-clean image (he’d been in trouble with the authorities for marijuana use) nor the traditional looks of a classic K-pop star. So how did he do it, and what was it about the song – a highly localized critique of South Korean Society – that turned it into such a global phenomenon?
Setting the stage
Psy had written “Gangnam Style” with the idea of parodying the flamboyance, narcissism, and ostentatious wealth he felt had become prevalent in the newly rich country – epitomized by the youth who hung around the ultra-rich district of Gangnam, known locally as the Beverly Hills of Seoul.
Ironically, Psy was from the area himself. Born Park Jae-sung, in 1977, to an affluent family, he was earmarked to take over his father’s semiconductor manufacturing business. Sent to the United States to study, he soon quit his place at Boston University to dedicate himself to music.
In the 11 years before “Gangnam Style” was released, Psy had carved out a niche for himself as a rapper known for his comedy, irreverence, and controversy (the blunt lyrics on his first album got him fined for “inappropriate content,” while his second was banned outright). By 2012 he’d joined YG Entertainment, one of South Korea’s three biggest entertainment agencies, and was an established star. With those elements in place, his sixth album, Psy 6 (Six Rules), Part 1, and its lead track, “Gangnam Style,” was set to be a hit – domestically, at least.
A YouTube sensation
Shot in a mere 48 hours, “Gangnam Style”’s music video was stuffed with a host of well-known South Korean celebrities to ensure local success. Seven-year-old Hwang Min-woo, whose dancing had proved a sensation on TV talent shows, was brought in to add his distinctive moves along with comedian and TV host Soon Jae-suk (who dances alongside Psy in a yellow suit). TV personality No Hong-chul provided the infamous elevator dance, with K-pop star Hyuna featured as the romantic interest.
And then, of course, there was the “horse dance” itself. Psy had already built a reputation for his memorably silly dance moves. Keen to give his fans something unique, he and his choreographer spent a month coming up with “Gangnam Style’”s signature horse trot and lasso spin.
Released on July 15, 2012, the song galloped straight out of the gates, with 500,000 YouTube views on its first day. What happened over the next few months, however, cemented “Gangnam Style’”s place in history.
As the song gained domestic popularity (before the month was out, it became one of the biggest South Korean hits of the year), word began to spread way beyond K-pop’s heartland. US rapper T-Pain was reportedly the first to give the track his endorsement when he tweeted enthusiastically about it, on July 29. Before long, a cavalcade of stars, among them Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Tom Cruise, and Robbie Williams, had picked up on it, too, introducing the song to their millions of followers and creating a viral sensation in the process. By September, “Gangnam Style” was averaging over six million views a day. Having topped the charts in over 30 countries, on December 21, 2012, it became the first video to reach one billion views on YouTube. By the time it hit 2,147,483,647 views, in 2014, YouTube’s counter needed to be upgraded in order to register any more. As of December 2019, the total is heading towards 3.5 billion.
‘Gangnam Style’ parodies and cultural impact
As momentum built, parodies of the dance swept across the world. The British Army and Thai Navy filmed their versions, while celebrities and politicians from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Mexico, Australia, Brazil, and Germany performed it on regional television. Flash mobs of thousands attempted recreations in California, New York, Sydney, Paris, Rome, and Milan, and professional footballers, boxers, tennis players, and cricketers all paid tribute in their sporting celebrations. Even the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and members of the British royal family attempted their own versions of the video’s dance routine.
Ultimately, “Gangnam Style’”s international success can be put down to a variety of factors: a great video filled with a mix of silliness and satire; a supremely catchy tune; and a dance that was bizarre, brilliant, and easy to parody. With perfect timing, it harnessed the power of the internet to make a South Korean rapping in his own language an international break-out star.
Looking for more? Discover the history of K-pop.