‘Gangnam Style’ at 10: How Psys’ huge hit sent Korean culture globally

The early 2010s were an era of instant hits. From “Harlem Shake” to “Party Rock Anthem”, digital platforms ushered in a new era of publicity – and virality.

On July 15, 2012, South Korean singer and rapper Psy broke onto the global music scene with a bright blue tuxedo, an unforgettable riding dance and an energetic beat that fell to the catchy lyrics of “Oppan Gangnam style”.

“Gangnam Style” soon went viral, creating waves around the world. The song hijacked the airwaves, the music video flooded Facebook’s timelines, and Psy’s straight hair and sunglasses appeared on American shows late at night. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in September, before climbing to number two weeks later. It also became the first video to reach 1 billion views on YouTube.

The music video for "Gangnam Style" became the first video to reach a billion views on YouTube in 2012.

The music video for “Gangnam Style” became the first video to reach a billion views on YouTube in 2012. Credit: Thomas Coex / AFP / Getty Images

Psy, already popular in his home country but barely known globally, quickly became one of the most recognizable artists in the world. Within a year, he had broken three Guinness World Records and performed in New York’s Madison Square Garden with Madonna. For the then 35-year-old from Seoul, that whirlwind success was something he could never have imagined.

In an interview prior to the song’s 10-year anniversary, he compares that period of his life to celebrating a birthday. “The day before, you’re excited in anticipation,” he tells CNN from the Seoul headquarters of P-Nation, the record company and entertainment agency he founded in 2018. “And so on the day before … it’s all a little wild and crazy. “

But the song’s influence extended far beyond the music industry. In fact, the success of “Gangnam Style” is considered an important catalyst in the “Korean wave” or “hallyu”, a term that describes the recent spread of Korean culture internationally – something the South Korean government has been trying to push through music and media since 1990 ‘erne.

According to Gyu Tag Lee, an associate professor of cultural studies specializing in K-pop and hallyu on George Mason University’s South Korean campus, it was “Gangnam Style” that gave Korean pop culture mainstream recognition outside of East Asia.

“This kind of becoming viral-on-the-internet media platforms, (such as) YouTube, made K-pop and hallyu really popular and big abroad,” he says.

Paves the way

Fast forward a decade and South Korean talents have reached new levels of global popularity and fandom.

The K-pop band BTS was the world’s best-selling musical act in 2021, and the group has since performed at the Grammy Awards and performed in the White House to discuss Asian representation and anti-Asian hate crimes. The girl group Blackpink has meanwhile performed at the Coachella music festival and collaborated with people like Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez, where their four members all join big brands or luxury fashion houses as ambassadors.

Lee believes that these highly successful K-pop acts are following in Psy’s footsteps by using shareable video content to reach a global audience.

“Without the big hit that was ‘Gangnam Style,’ there might not have been BTS, there might not have been Blackpink,” Lee says.

BTS has often quoted – and thanked – Psy for helping globalize K-pop. One of the boy band’s members, Suga, was even co-produced and appeared on “That That”, the main single from Psy’s new album, “Psy 9th”. Like “Gangnam Style”, the song is catchy and danceable, while the music video features some of the singer’s distinctive humor and has already garnered more than 272 million views on YouTube.
South Korean rapper Park Jae-Sang also known as Psy performs "Gangnam Style" in front of a crowd during a flashmob on November 5, 2012 in Paris.

South Korean rapper Park Jae-Sang also known as Psy performs “Gangnam Style” in front of an audience during a flash mob on November 5, 2012 in Paris. Credit: Thomas Samson / AFP / Getty Images

In a behind-the-scenes video interview posted on Psy’s YouTube account, Suga expresses her gratitude to the “Gangnam Style” singer.

“He paved the way for K-pop in the United States, allowing (BTS) to follow that path more comfortably,” Suga says.

And the appreciation is mutual. “I think it’s an incredible achievement,” Psy says of BTS ‘success. “Every single part of me welcomes them and cheers on them. The heavy burden that I felt in 2012 – BTS has borne it for six or seven years now.”

In addition to breaking records

For Psy, there has always been another side to his global success. As excited and happy as he was during those “Gangnam Style” days, he said that performing and being on the go made him feel “just too overwhelmed” and “a little empty inside.”

Fame also led to new expectations – and the pressure to make more hits.

“When the song is a hit, then your songs should continue to be hits,” he says. “When the person is a hit, the success is more sustainable. In this case, I am the former and BTS is the latter.”

Although Psy never repeated the success of “Gangnam Style”, he has spent the last decade proving that he is a musician and dancer with a unique drive to entertain. Since 2012, he has released three full-length albums that showcase his diverse style – from the dance hits he is best known for, to softer, rhythmic ballads reminiscent of his previous output. Since founding P-Nation, he has used the brand to discover, develop and creatively support the next generation of South Korean acts.

Psy at a press conference about her new album "Psy 9" at the Fairmont Ambassador Hotel on April 29, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea.

Psy at a press conference about his new album “Psy 9th” at the Fairmont Ambassador Hotel on April 29, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

In between, Psy still fills venues in his home country. His annual concert series, “Summer Swag” is currently underway after being canceled due to the pandemic.

“Interacting with the audience (and) sharing that experience is something I can’t even describe,” Psy says. “I feel incredibly proud and satisfied in that moment.”

And his mission has not changed since his breakout hit: “Making fun music, fun dancing and bringing joy to my fans.”

“It’s my hope,” he adds. “I was of the same opinion 10 years ago and I think I will feel the same way in 20 years. I will always be true to that.”

Watch the video above to hear more from Psy.

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