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[Korean History] In 2012, K-pop makes leap from 'Gangnam' to the world

Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style' makes a splash on the world music scene, paving the way for a bigger Korean wave

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Dec. 15, 2023 - 15:36

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Screengrab of Psy's 'Gangnam Style' music video (YouTube) Screengrab of Psy's 'Gangnam Style' music video (YouTube)

South Korean bands claiming a spot on the top global charts is by no means a surprise at this point, with acts like Blackpink, NewJeans and BTS commanding massive international fan bases.

But just a little more than a decade ago, even cracking Billboard's top 100 singles chart would put a K-pop act in the national headlines. And it could be argued that BTS and its contemporaries owe just a bit of their worldwide success to the first K-pop song to enjoy worldwide success: Psy's 2012 megahit “Gangnam Style.”

“Singer becomes sensation,” reads the page 2 story of The Korea Herald's Aug. 17, 2012, edition, citing how the then 34-year-old musician's “tongue-in-cheek, laugh-out-loud music video” and its “infectious horseback riding choreography” has led to a global buzz. The single of his sixth studio album has captivated the global audience with its catchy beats, easy-to-follow dance moves and satirical, over-the-top music video that has broken records ever since it hit YouTube.

YouTube sensation

While Psy's single remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for 31 weeks straight and peaked at No. 2, its real popularity was on YouTube. The song's popularity started when its “deliberately cheesy” and comedic music video went viral on YouTube.

Since its release in July 2012, “Gangnam Style” became the first video on YouTube to reach a billion views, soaring past the previous record held by Justin Beiber's “Baby.” In December of that year, the song even “broke” the YouTube counter when it reached the previous maximum setting on the view counter.

The video platform had previously used a 32-bit integer, meaning the maximum views countable was 2,147,483,647.

“We never thought a video would be watched in numbers greater than a 32-bit integer ... but that was before we met Psy,” YouTube said in its statement, as it changed the maximum setting to over 9.22 quintillion -- more than 9,220,000,000,000,000,000.

“Gangnam Style” remained the most-watched video on YouTube from Nov. 24, 2012, to July 10, 2017, and it currently is the 11th most-watched video as of today with 4.9 billion views.

On par with its video success was the worldwide popularity of the song's horse-riding dance. The simple dance was emulated by stars, club-goers and even aerobic sessions across the country, with even then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon touting it as a “force for world peace” in a 2012 interview.

A year later, then-US President Barack Obama mentioned in a press conference about how his daughters taught him a “pretty good Gangnam Style.”

The song, just like the star and the music video, was rather an oddity in K-pop. In a music scene dominated by beautiful people dressed immaculately, here was a chubby man making a music video where he sings on a toilet and makes a fool of himself.

He has always been popular, but was by no means an outlier here. Dating back to his satirical debut single “Bird” in 2001, the singer has been perceived locally as a funny guy who made funny songs and music videos, and “Gangnam Style” was just that.

The Oct. 6, 2012 edition of The Korea Herald The Oct. 6, 2012 edition of The Korea Herald

In an Oct. 6 edition story “Cheesy ‘B-class culture’ sweeps Korea,” The Korea Herald delves into the success of “Gangnam Style.” The singer deliberately makes fun of himself for the amusement of the others, knowing that he is far from the mainstream idea of a K-pop idol.

The use of the word “Gangnam” and the lyrics reflect that. Gangnam is an affluent area in southern Seoul that leads in fashion and trends. The speaker of the song refers to himself as an “oppa,” older brother in Korean, and boasts himself to be a real man who “downs a cup of hot coffee in one gulp” and “goes crazy at nights.”

He is anything but cool, and he knows it.

“I love being an underdog, I was born an underdog and whenever I come up with cheesy music, it gives me the goose bumps,” Psy said at a press conference after his triumphant return to Seoul from his US tour on Sept. 26, 2012.

One of the ironies of “Gangnam Style” -- besides everything about the lyrics, the music video and the peculiar style -- is that only two of its scenes were actually shot in the Gangnam-gu district. The rest were shot at Songdo International Business District in Incheon, a spot often used to shoot not just music videos but also movies and dramas.

Nevertheless, the song has become something of an unofficial anthem with Gangnam. For some time in 2012, subway passengers arriving at Gangnam Station could hear broadcast messages saying, “You are arriving at Gangnam Station, a place of international fame,” a nod to massive hit of the Psy song.

The district office in 2016 erected a giant statue of not Psy, but a pair of hands doing the horse-riding dance in front of the Coex Convention & Exhibition Center in Samseong-dong, which is frequently visited by foreign visitors.

When asked about the statue, Psy said, “It's a bit much.”

The surge of K-pop

After “Gangnam Style,” Psy continued to produce hits on South Korean soil, but on the international stage, he was closer to a one-hit wonder.

Besides Psy, only two other Korean artists -- Wonder Girls in 2009 and CL in 2015 -- made the Billboard Hot 100 prior to 2017, and they were ranked No. 76 and No. 97, respectively.

BTS, the most successful act that K-pop has produced to date, debuted in June 2013. BTS, the most successful act that K-pop has produced to date, debuted in June 2013.

K-pop started to gather steam with BTS. While not yet on the scale of “Gangnam Style,” it had a consistent string of hits from 2017 to 2019.

In 2020, it finally became the first K-pop act in history to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Dynamite.” The song stayed on the chart for 32 weeks, a week longer than “Gangnam Style.”

The seven-member boy band would go on to become a regular on the Billboard charts, notching multiple No. 1 spots and becoming one of the most popular and successful pop acts in the world, surpassing the level of fame and success that Psy had in his heyday.

BTS became the first K-pop act to be nominated for a Grammy Awards in 2021, won multiple awards at the Billboard Music Awards, and won the Artist of the Year award at the American Music Awards in the same year. Despite BTS going on a temporary hiatus with some of its members fulfilling their mandatory military service, the group's fandom has still been going strong, and the solo projects of remaining members have been massive hits.

On July 25, “Seven” by BTS' Jungkook debuted at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard's Hot 100, becoming the third K-pop act to top the chart after his own band back in 2020 and his bandmate Jimin earlier in the year.

With BTS, the door was wide open for more K-pop acts. SuperM, Stray Kids, Blackpink, Tomorrow X Together, and NewJeans all have topped the Billboard 200 albums chart, a feat that eluded even Psy in his prime.

The BBMA created the Top Global K-Pop Artist award for 2023, the inaugural winner of which was NewJeans. The super rookie group made its US awards show debut at the BBMA on Nov. 19, where it was joined by other K-pop superstars Jungkook, Stray Kids and BlackPink who won the three other newly established awards in the K-pop category.

K-pop's global popularity is higher than ever, and it has been established as a genre enjoyed by those across the world. But the pioneer of K-pop’s international success was a man who deemed himself an underdog and an afterthought to other flashy contemporaries. Exemplified by his personal motto of "dress classy and dance cheesy," the artist was not afraid to make fun of himself, and some say that has helped him win fans across the world.