Psy's "Gangnam Style": The Next Big Thing or Just a Fluke?



The Korean wave, also known as hallyu, may not have been a relevant phenomenon two years ago, but recently has been getting more attention in North America. Now even those who shun both pop music and Korean culture would have heard, seen, giggled at, or/and puzzled by Psy's outrageously catchy "Gangngam Style". Some even claim that Psy's (arguably incidental) exposure to international audiences on YouTube demonstrates that K-pop has finally achieved its hard-earned break into the North American music market. Others, like blogger and journalist Esther Oh, rebut with outright skepticism (Oh). But whether you anticipate it or are tormented by the possibility of a K-pop apocalypse, the genre, or rather, phenomena has made an impact on at least some North American audiences --a ripple effect, however small, that stirred an interest in me and other North American bloggers to explore, question and speculate.

History and Popularity

Considering its history, K-pop strives to come to full circle and be embraced by the culture from which it originated. The very beginning of K-pop sprang from the introduction of Western culture and music in Korea. In its essence K-pop is a Korean adaptation of Western music, sung in Korean language and performed by Korean born artists. But since the early 90s, when Western music blended into the Korean music industry, a lot of purely Korean elements have been added to the mix, creating a brand new product. Yes, it still relies heavily on Western trends for musical inspiration, but the music videos and idols themselves (as well as their respective producers) are responsible for its unique message and image. Now K-Pop has grown to encompass almost all genres of Korean music: Trot, Pop, Indie, Hip-Hop, R&B, Rock, and others.

Soon enough its popularity extended to other parts of Asia: China, Japan, and much of Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam ("K-Pop History"). It has become particularly popular in Japan, so much so that many are worried that J-Pop is becoming obsolete. In fact, a lot of K-Pop idols learn Japanese in order to release Japanese versions of their songs, albums and even videos -and these are entirely different from their original Korean versions, not mere translations.

In the U.S and Canada some artists are also gainging popularity. Artists such as Taeyang, Rain, 2NE1 have enjoyed some commercial success in North America. Other artists routinely tour in North America, Australia and the UK, selling out large venues in the U.S, with the support of their English speaking fans. In 2009, The Wonder Girls were among the first to have a single in a North American music chart, only to be later surpassed by Psy's "Gangam Style" which topped the charts both in the UK and North America (completely unheard of for a Korean artist).

Psy's now infamous "Gangnam Style" music video.

The Legend of Psy

Unlike other K-pop videos that tend to have a trivial subject matter, Psy's video is a political satire about one of Seoul's well-off neighbourhoods. Some aspects of the video of "Gangnam Style" bring to light the gap between the rich and the poor in South Korea, which both "mocks and celebrates it" (as a New York Times article suggests (Lee)). Wait, the New York Times? Yes, Psy's ridiculous video was taken seriously enough to warrant an article in one of US's top newspapers. Even celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and American pop star Britney Spears were wildly entrained by Psy's MV. Spears tweeted that she would like to learn the dance, and Ellen invited her (along with Psy) to her show so they can dance the "invisible pony dance" in unison ("Surprise! Britney Learns 'Gangnam Style' from Psy!"). No one can deny that K-pop is making waves on the back of Psy's unexpected success, and now most reputable news sites around the world have covered the video.

But despite being a genuinely silly song, Psy's "Gangnam Style" is often at the core of heavy social and political debate. The key issues discussed often are: the prospect of a political conspiracy as the driving force behind this million dollar industry, the repercussions of K-pop's marketing of unattainable perfection on its audience, and its market appeal and capacity for North-American crossover. How can the trivial popularity of boy and girl bands affect the great and ever-so-complicated scope of Korean politics? A video podcast ("K-pop Diplomacy"), lately compiled by The Stream has produced a variety of opinions on the subject. In it the hosts and several other experts explore the possible political intentions behind the K-Pop industry. It includes Simon and Martina (Eat Your Kimchi), blogger Esther Oh, and others, as they debate the viral sensation that Psy's "Gangnam Style" has become, and what it could possibly mean both for Korea and North America.

Simon and Martina from "Eat Your Kimchi"  reviewing Psy's "Gangnam Style" in their segment "Music Mondays".

Cross-Over via YouTube

Some of the featured experts seem to suggest that the South Korean government, taking an interest in this flourishing industry, are more inclined to invest in it for its potential visibility overseas ("K-pop Diplomacy"). For what purposes and how, is still only speculated, since K-pop had only recently began its steady climb up international music charts. Psy's MV has already garnered more than 300 million views since its release, and has become the first Korean song generate such wide publicity and interest overseas. The hit song has also reached the top of the music charts in the UK (Park) and is currently on second place on US Billboard's Hot 100 parade chart (Ahad), conquering two English speaking nations simultaneously.

YouTube is probably the main culprit for this sudden surge of interest. The reason terms like viral are often attributed to videos in general is because they are widely available to anyone with internet access, and so have the ability to capture the attention of international audiences. K-pop bands and idols, as well as production companies, usually have a well-maintained website and their own official YouTube channel where they post new released videos of their idols. I would even argue that they do this more readily without as many grueling copyright infringement policies.

Many North American music videos tend to be removed from YouTube shortly after someone has managed to post them (whether ignorantly or intentionally), whereas Korean production companies seem to hone in on the motto: "no publicity is bad publicity". K-pop MVs seem to be almost readily available on YouTube as soon as they are available anywhere else (in fact previews and sneak peeks as well as behind the scenes are often included to produce more anticipation for the fans). However this is not to say that companies don't exercise stern regulation either. Some videos which are banned in S. Korea disappear virtually overnight (though mostly released in curious countries like Japan as DVDs).

Is Psy Just a Fluke?

Blogger and writer Esther Oh, who is originally from Chicago but now lives and works in South Korea, has pointed out that "the media's coverage of hallyu and K-Pop feel-gooderies is ridiculously one-sided" (Oh). In one post she chronicles K-pop stars like Se7en and BoA whose initial success in the United States failed miserably. She also makes the distinction between hallyu (pure, unadulterated K-pop, produced and sung by Koreans, in Korean) and Korean idols or American-Koreans producing English albums and collaborating with a majority of American producers and Artists.

Oh reflects the stance of many critics, but I would argue the Psy does not fall into any of these categories. None of the aforementioned artists experienced such rapid and insatiable Western reception as Psy did; the enthusiasm to Psy's MV is unparalleled. Moreover, Psy never attempted to break into the North American market; it just happened. His song is about Korea, in Korean, produced mostly by him and includes nothing but Korean scenery and actors. The discourse is foreign to the American public, yet somehow has managed to reap great appeal. This is due to the universal nature of humour. Comedy rarely has boundaries, and it is because of Psy's endearingly comedic video that it was able to make an impression on any (and every audience). So, the content of the video hardly mattered.

However, I would agree with miss Oh about certain distinctions between different K-pop artists. In the mostly unnoticed grey areas of K-pop that are some that fit better than others. Meaning, Psy's music on the whole cannot be classified as K-pop along with boy bands and teen idols (like Teen Top, B2ST and Super Junior) for the simple reason that Psy is not an idol. He is a regular-looking guy, in a suit who raps surrounded with pretty girls and some ridiculous characters, accompanied by an infectious chorus and dance moves. His music can be more closely regarded as K-indie music, because on a whole his music is not nearly as widespread in Korea as that of many K-pop idols (who enjoy practically fanatic popularity).

Another inherent issue is that Psy as an artist fits better in the North American culture because his videos omit a huge chunk of K-idol elements, such as gender-bending clothing and makeup on male idols. The second issue that Oh brings up cannot be addressed at the moment. Will Psy's popularity wane like it did for the others? Or will the North American public will be more receptive and anticipating of more videos and music from this up-and-coming artist? That puts a lot of pressure on Psy, and remains to be undetermined.

What Would Governmental Involvement Mean?

Speaking of pressure: K-pop is a 4 billion dollar industry, coupled with Korean TV and cinema. It has been developed by 80% since 2007, and since then the Korean government has become interested in the industry for its potential visibility in the political international arena ("K-pop Diplomacy"). If Psy is the sole beacon of hope for the South Korean government he might lose the creative freedom he currently has in the production of his own music. The Korean government, after all, has the final say even in matters of music. In fact, if a K-pop video is reviewed and deemed offensive to the sensibilities of the "public of Korea" it will be banned from Korean radio and television (as has happened with previous music videos by hip-hop artists GD and Top, and R&P/ Pop singer Xiah Junsus' [see, "Intoxication"]).

Xiah Junsu's "Intoxication" proved too sexy for Korean audiences. Now the video is difficult to find even online. 

To some it seems ridiculous that K-pop can be used as a political tool by the Korean government. K-pop, bubbly and innocent is just that. But if we consider it from a strategically political point of view, what would a North American crossover possibly mean for Korea?

There are some economic factors that cannot be ignored. More visibility, that is from having Korean pop music videos more readily available in North America, would produce a massive economic avalanche. Korean fashion and cosmetics industries (which are usually endorsed by idols) would get a huge economic boost when North Americans audience decide, that they want a dress just like Hyuna's from one of her videos. Needless to say, CDs, posters and idol-merchandise would stream into North American countries, given that popular demand requires it; if this would occur it might open an entire new industry of export and import relation in North America, that I don't believe in currently very developed. This could mean a huge boost to Korean economics if North Americans (and thereafter other countries that consume American culture) would take an interest in Korean music.

A video podcast discussing Psy's "Gangnam Style", K-Pop and the concept of Soft Power. What could this mean for S. Korean government to have a prosperous music industry overseas?

 Not All Is Picture Perfect

Issues of Cross-Over:

But critics are [also] leery of an industry that markets perfection that will undoubtedly influence the Korean masses ("K-pop Diplomacy"). Though the well-groomed exterior of glamour is deceptive; Korean idols' true life reflects Korean's societal values: that of hard work and servitude to the common good. K-pop doesn't reflect Korean society as a whole, and its consumers should have that in mind. Korean culture has very different values when it comes to beauty, youth, femininity and masculinity. While it is important to note that K-pop does not accurately reflect these, it does have the possibility to produce negative body image in the youth that is globally exposed to K-pop. I also suspect that images of beauty are needlessly Westernized. There's a broken telephone effect between Asian and Western values regarding beauty; Asian girls cannot and should not resemble Caucasian women and vice versa, yet these truths seem lost in translation. Asian girls want to look white, some white girls want to have the petite figures of Asian girls -it is a vicious cycle, and a broken mirror.

Many critics are concerned with K-pop's overwhelming influence on young audiences and how it expands to Korean society and its values. Striving for perfection has always been an intrinsic value of Korean culture, as Koreans pride themselves in being hardworking and task-oriented. However with K-pop in the picture (excuse the pun) images of unattainable, artificial beauty are constantly imbued into the impressionable sub-consciousness of Korean youth (and soon, possibly even North American youth). Incidentally, S. Korea tops the charts as the country with the highest rates of plastic surgery in the entire world. Though the procedure is common, simple and regarded as very safe, the prevalence of the dual-lid eye surgery, for example, sends a message to Koreans that their naturally given eyes are not good enough.

Other physical augmentations that idols are often encouraged to undertake by their producers include nose surgery (to make their nose-bridge thinner) and many others that seem to cater to notions that having Caucasian features is more attractive. Images of unhealthy thinness (Korean idols boast to having BMIs as low as 18), social status, face shape, body shape and sexuality are also heavily debated considering K-pop's fanatically dedicated audience is composed of adolescents.

A duo between the girl band A Pink and boy band B2ST. The chorus goes, "skinny baby hot hot", and so on.

Sexuality or Androgyny?

Those that are not engrossed in the hallyu culture either don't understand or are flat-out repelled by the notions of K-pop. Since K-Pop displays very different images of beauty, femininity and masculinity, our society, which has more concrete standards regarding the division of gender and sexuality, might be initially puzzled. However, with recent acceptance and even embrace of androgyny in American fashion, this is beginning to change (hopefully). It is also important to note that K-Pop does not fully and concretely reflect the ideals of Korean society as a whole. An example of such response can be seen in a video compiled by a Christian YouTube channel AprilandWayneShow ("K-Pop promotes homosexuality, bisexuality, sexual perversion and cross dressing!"). The video's is title: summarises the core premise of the video. Though it mainly reflects an extreme Christian point of view, it has touched on some issues that North American viewers might have with K-Pop videos. These tend to include idols who are made up to look androgynous or effeminate, their hair dyed and their faces heavily made-up. Some include dance moves that can be construed as sexual, and others showcase instances of homoerotic interaction between same-sex band members.

An anti-Kpop video posted on YouTube.

However, K-Pop idols' appearance and public image is skewed to produce a specific affect (the love of a particular group of fans); thus, his appearance and behaviour doesn't necessarily reflect his true personality. Also, similarly to how North American MVs don't speak about Canada or America as a whole (nor do we dress and act like celebrities do in their videos and on stage), we cannot rely on such images to establish any valid opinion about Korean society.

The Bottom Line:

It is possible that Psy' "Gangnam Style" has paved the way for other K-Pop idols to make an impact on the North American music market. But the road to stardom won't be easy. Prejudice and homophobia could very well prevent this foreign culture from assimilating into our own. 

Worst of all, if K-Pop does manage to please out finicky tastes, the repercussions could prove to be scary; this kind of unrealistic perfection that K-Pop propagates can affect our already confidence-ailing nation. But what if Psy has succeeded where many others have failed before? (So far, he has!) If K-Pop does spread like wildfire it would do wonders for South Korea's economy. With the help of YouTube and North American blogs like EatYourKimchi, a K-Pop apocalypse is possible. The prospect sounds scary. But the underlying truth is we would already be consuming something we have loved for decades: Western pop music, just packaged differently. I think this kind of change could be refreshing for the American music industry.



Ahad, Abdul. "'Gangnam Style' stuck in second on US pop chart". Entertainment. Business Recorder. 4 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.


"K-pop diplomacy." YouTube.  The Stream: AlJazeeraEnglish. 3 Sep. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2012.


"K-Pop History." Kpop Online News. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.


"K-Pop promotes homosexuality, bisexuality, sexual perversion and cross dressing!" YouTube. AprilandWayneShow. 22 March 2012. Web. Sept. 18, 2012.


Lee, Su Hyun. "Viral Video Gets Propaganda Treatment." Asia Pacific. New York Times Online. 20 Sept. 2012.


Oh, Sandra. "K-Pop taking over the world? Don't make me laugh." Tell Me About It. CNNGo. 16 May 2011. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.


Park, Madison. "'Gangnam Style' dominates UK charts." World. CNN. 2 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.


Simon and Martina. Eat Your Kimchi, 2008-2012. Web. 9 Sept. 2012.

 "Surprise! Britney Learns 'Gangnam Style' from Psy!" YouTube. TheEllenShow, 10 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Sept. 2012.

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