‘Gangnam Style’ at 10: How Psy’s smash hit sent Korean culture around the world

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

On July 15, 2012, South Korean singer and rapper Psy burst onto the global music scene in a bright blue tuxedo, an unforgettable dance on horseback, and an energetic beat that turned into the catchy lyric, “Oppan Gangnam style.”

“Gangnam Style” soon went viral and caused a worldwide sensation. The song hijacked the airwaves, the music video flooded Facebook timelines, and Psy’s slicked-back hair and sunglasses appeared on American late-night talk shows. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in September, before climbing to number 2 weeks later. It also became the first video to reach one billion views on YouTube.

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

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

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

In an interview leading up to the song’s 10th anniversary, he compares that period of his life to celebrating a birthday. “The day before, you’re excited by the anticipation,” he tells CNN from the Seoul headquarters of P-Nation, the record label and entertainment agency he founded in 2018. “And then the day of…everything is a little wild and crazy”.

But the song’s impact extended far beyond the music industry. In fact, the success of “Gangnam Style” is seen as a major catalyst for the “Korean Wave” or “hallyu,” a term that describes the recent proliferation of Korean culture internationally, something the South Korean government has been trying to boost. music and media since the 1990s.

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

“These kinds of media platforms going viral on the internet, (like) YouTube, made K-pop and hallyu really popular and big overseas,” he says.

paving the way

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

K-pop band BTS was the world’s best-selling music act in 2021, and the group has since performed at the Grammys and appeared at the White House to speak out on Asian representation and anti-Asian hate crimes. Meanwhile, girl group Blackpink performed at the Coachella music festival and collaborated with Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez, and its four members joined major brands or luxury fashion houses as ambassadors.

Lee believes these blockbuster K-pop acts are following in Psy’s footsteps by using shareable video content to reach global audiences.

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

BTS has often quoted and thanked Psy for helping to globalize K-pop. One of the boy band members, Suga, even co-produced and appeared on “That That,” the lead 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 trademark humor and has already garnered over 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 a crowd 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 his gratitude for the “Gangnam Style” singer.

“It paved the way for K-pop in the US, which allowed (BTS) to follow that path more comfortably,” says Suga.

And the appreciation is mutual. “I think that’s an amazing feat,” Psy says of BTS’ success. “Every part of me applauds and cheers for you. That heavy burden I felt in 2012, BTS has been carrying for six or seven years.”

Beyond 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 touring left him feeling “too overwhelmed” and “a little empty inside.”

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

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

While Psy never replicated the success of “Gangnam Style,” he’s spent the past decade proving to be a musician and dancer with a singular drive to entertain. Since 2012, he has released three full-length albums showcasing his diverse style, from the dance hits he is best known for to softer rhythmic ballads reminiscent of his earlier output. Since he founded P-Nation, he has used the label to creatively discover, develop and support the next generation of South Korean acts.

Psy at a press conference for his new album "ninth psi" at Fairmont Ambassador Hotel on April 29, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea.

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

Between everything, Psy continues filling places in his country of origin. Her 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,” says Psy. “I feel incredibly proud and happy at that moment.”

And their mission hasn’t changed since their big success: “Make fun music, fun dance, and make my fans happy.”

“That’s my hope,” he adds. “I had the same opinion 10 years ago and I think I will feel the same way 20 years from now. I will always stay true to that.”

Watch the video above to hear more from Psy.

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