It’s an understatement to say that Korean pop song, “Gangnam Style,” is a runaway success.
The song by Korean music star Psy is now the number 2 song on the Billboard 100. In the last month, it has held the number one spot in the UK and Australia. In late September, it was the top-downloaded song on iTunes in 31 countries, across Asia, Europe, South and Central America, and the United States.
And its YouTube video, which was released on July 15, it has racked up nearly 500 million views as of this writing. (If you are one of the few people who hasn’t seen it yet, watch it now!)
So how did this song sung entirely in Korean (okay, except for the phrase “Hey, sexy lady”), come to top charts around the globe? Well, the video is key — and it also explains why you could see and hear a lot more K-pop in the future.
How K-pop has already conquered Asia
Korea is a small country (less than 50 million people). And yet its television dramas, music and movies are hugely popular across Asia, including in China and Japan, which has the second-largest music market after the United States.
So how did this tiny country begin creating cultural products for 1.2 billion Asians (and making $2 billion a year from it)? Industrialization.
Just like Motown did, Korean pop (nicknamed K-pop) has worked on packaging up appealing pop for decades. As Zoe Chace says on NPR’s Planet Money:
“Korea exports a lot of products — cars, computers, phones. You use Korean products every day. A Korean pop song is just another product. But a very high tech, very sophisticated product.”
Korea has been perfecting these cultural products by creating a huge factory-like system for K-pop. A recent New Yorker article on K-pop details the regimen of a K-pop trainee: lessons in singing, dancing, acting and Japanese, Chinese and English, and media coaching.
Trainees may also be forced to follow strict curfews, diets and dating rules. The New Yorker says “Good looks are a K-pop artist’s stock-in-trade” and reports that one agency “forbids its female trainees to have boyfriends and bars any food or water after 7pm, according to the Straits Times, Singapore’s English-language newspaper.”
How ‘Gangnam Style’ became popular in the West
While K-pop might be like Motown in how industrialized its process it is, it differs from it in one key way: Motown developed in the era of the radio and the phonograph, but K-pop grew up in the age of television and the internet, as Max Fisher says in the Washington Post.
That means that Korean pop, from its beginning, was a visual medium. NPR’s Chace says:
“From the beginning, new songs debuted on national television, not on the radio, like was done traditionally over here. That means the moment Koreans started listening to Korean pop music, they were listening through their screens. They were watching their music.”
Additionally, Korea is the most wired nation in the world, so the record labels got really good at making YouTube videos.
And that brings us back to “Gangnam Style.”
If the video weren’t as outrageous and hilarious as it is, it would not have gotten the traction it did in Western markets.
So, is there a lesson that the K-pop industry can learn from Psy, who is much older and more portly than the typical “airbrushed” K-pop star?
Yes — primarily that he’s willing to make fun of himself. If the K-pop industry can let go of its focus on producing perfectly polished (but kind of boring) pop dolls, and still capitalize on its video-making prowess, then we may be seeing and hearing a lot more of Korean pop in the future.