“Gangnam Style”: What It Is And Why America Was Bound To Fall In Love With It

Christina Lee | September 14, 2012 5:30 am

South Korean rapper of the moment PSY says he never imagined that “Gangnam Style” would be viewed more than 150 million times on YouTube. The video’s viral success was an even bigger surprise to the Korean music industry, whose chief export had been (until a minute ago) young, eager, camera-ready pop groups perfected by years’ of media training, gunning for crossover fame overseas in the United States. Compared to those svelte 20-somethings, Psy—age 34 and of average size—considered himself to be an industry misfit. To further prove his point, he’d learned to dance to “Single Ladies” for live shows.

It’s fitting, then, that when Schoolboy Records manager Scooter Braun announced that Psy would join Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen on his roster, he made one particular goal known: Psy will be “the first Korean artist to break a big record in the United States.”

To US ears, “Gangnam Style” may sound like an LMFAO collaboration beamed from overseas. To first-time viewers of his music video, as Britney Spears and Ellen DeGeneres can now attest, PSY’s Running Man-meets-rodeo king choreography looks easier to nail than it actually is. As immediate and infectious as “Gangnam Style” may be, thousands of YouTube users have attempted to dissect nearly all aspects of the sudden hit and its accompanying, ridiculously viral music video: its rhythm, its apparent symbolism, if not its actual lyrics. (Despite its title being clearly displayed, English-language listeners — Usher included — apparently heard it as “Open Condom Style.”) But to PSY, “Gangnam Style” is simply a way of life, at least in Korea. Named after one of Seoul’s most affluent districts, this song off his sixth (!) album is about a couple “acting noble at daytime and going crazy at nighttime,” as the rapper told Ryan Seacrest.

PSY’s crossover success reminds of all the Korean artists that have previously set their sights for US fame — and also the US artists who then looked to the K-pop industry for inspiration. Let’s talk about them.

Number of times Rain topped TIME’s 100 poll: 3 In 2006, JYP Entertainment’s first crossover hopeful Rain performed two sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden and one in Las Vegas — the sort of events that surely cemented his #1 spot in TIME‘s annual reader poll of most influential people, before he’d top it again in 2007 and 2011. The incredibly eager support from his fans (nicknamed his “Clouds”) once even helped Rain edge out Stephen Colbert for the poll’s #2 spot in 2008, a score that Colbert tried to settle via dance-off. Rain’s one failure: not recording an English-language album before he began his compulsory military service, as required of all Korean males.

Rain, “It’s Raining”

Number of U.S. concerts in which Wonder Girls opened for the Jonas Brothers: 45 Before it opened for Justin Bieber in his 2010 Valentine’s Day concert or even teamed with Akon for “Like Money,” Wonder Girls opened for the Jonas Brothers during the US arm of its 2009 world tour. Soon after that, Wonder Girls became the first Korean group to break into Billboard‘s Hot 100 with “Nobody.”

Wonder Girls, “Nobody”

Number of views it took for a B.o.B cover to send a K-pop star back to Korea: 5.1 million At 17, Jay Park moved from Seattle to Seoul and started training for JYP Entertainment. After a few years worth of frustration, with plenty of dance and vocal lessons in between, Park finally settled as a member of 2PM — that is, until a fan spotted a comment Park made on a friend’s MySpace profile long before he acclimated (“korea is gay… I hate koreans..”). Park left 2PM and Korea in a hurry, but he couldn’t stop singing. In particular, his cover of “Nothin’ On You” helped send Park back to Korea with a new recording deal, writing and producing as a solo artist.

Jay Park, “Nothin’ On You” (B.o.B. cover)

Number of people who watched the MBC K-Pop Concert live: 137,000 In May, Google and YouTube teamed with Korean broadcaster MBC to host a concert featuring nine of K-pop’s biggest groups, including TVXQ, Super Junior, Wonder Girls and the first group to top Billboard‘s K-Pop 100, SISTAR. The concert broadcast live from Shoreline Ampitheatre in northern California (capacity: 22,000), and online viewership peaked at 115,000 when Girls’ Generation took the stage.

Girls’ Generation’s performance at the MBC K-Pop Concert

Number of U.S. producers who have worked with K-pop: 5 Diplo supplied the beat for GD&TOP‘s “Knock Out,” a song banned from national airwaves for “damaging the national psyche,” but was a YouTube sensation nonetheless. JYJ‘s Atlantic Records debut The Beginning features two songs produced by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Spice Girls), and its lead single “Ayyy Girl” features a verse from Kanye West. will.i.am announced that he’ll be producing 2NE1‘s US debut, right as Swizz Beatz inked a deal between his own production company and Korea’s O.N. Media. Many of these producers set out to make history, but Diplo listed one reason and one reason only: “the styling is sooooo much better then US rap its really sad. anyway im moving to Korea now.”

GD&TOP, “Knock Out”

Simon and Martina Stawski, the Canadian married couple behind Korean music and lifestyle blog Eat Your Kimchi, were also among the first YouTube users to attempt breaking down its appeal, via review and even cover song.

Eat Your Kimchi, “Eat Your Kimchi Style”:

Did we miss any other notable moments in America’s pre-Psy love affair with K-pop? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.