Psy's "Gangnam Style" to create a seismic shift in K-Pop culture?

By Daniele Pestilli on September 20, 2012
YouTube screenshot of Psy in "Gangnam Style"

In just two months, South Korea’s overnight sensation, Psy, has gotten almost 221 million hits on YouTube and has topped the iTunes Top 10 charts for his music video, “Gangnam Style.”

This has stigmatized Psy, or Pak Jae-sang, as the first K-Pop (Korean pop) artist in history to fully breakthrough in the American music industry – something Korea has been attempting for a long time. With its catchy tune and funny choreography, it has gained popularity akin to the “Macarena” back in 1995. But will Psy’s hit be a turning point for Korean pop culture, or is this merely a one-time wonder?

The song’s irony derives from the fact that a plump Korean guy says he has “Gangnam Style” while doing a cheesy horse dance with a fancy suit and dark shades. Gangnam – literally “south of the river” –  is an affluent neighborhood in Seoul. In fact it is the most expensive neighborhood in all of South Korea. The average apartment there costs around $720,000, with around 61% of Seoul’s lawyers, a good number of bureaucrats and more than 50% of its doctors living there. Gangnam is also known for ranking high on the scale of materialistic and capitalist shallowness: it is the hub of the country’s financial sector as well as the place where many of Korea’s top conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai are headquartered. Furthermore, it is a mecca for plastic surgery: getting off at Gangnam station inevitably entails being bombarded with advertisements of before-and-after surgery posters. Essentially, it is the place where people do their best to look their best.

Psy was brought up in an wealthy family near Gangnam. However, he does not fit the Gangnam stereotype. As he himself admitted on the Today Show, “I'm not handsome, I'm not tall, I'm not muscular, I'm not skinny, but I'm sitting here.” So much for surgery and good looks. One can only assume that Psy’s success spawns from something deeper, less superficial that hit a sensitive nerve within listeners both domestically and globally.

With Gangnam Style, Psy has shattered the map-following that K-Pop artists are so accustomed to. He has shattered the dogma by which most Korean musicians have been trying to succeed in this industry and has chosen to go his own path instead, while having a bit of fun on the way. Gangnam Style is, as it were, the anti K-Pop. It is the parody of all that has been done in the Korean music industry. And while there is choreographed dancing and allusions to perfection in the official music video, that too is turned into parody.

Psy was fearless and shameless of being himself while poking fun at his imperfections, and as a result he was successful. Gangnam Style’s silly horse dance does not look professional, but it comes through as being a lot more genuine than what is currently being produced in the K-Pop world. His success should serve as a wakeup call to Korean society at large, which is known for its ruthless competition, culture of copying and bouts for perfection. Psy’s ascent to the international music scene testifies to the fact that originality pays, that imperfections are real, and that people respond to real.

Gangnam Style dancers
Gangnam Style dancers

Nevertheless, as time goes by, it seems that Psy's genius is gradually being drummed out of his initial performance. Whereas Gangnam Style seems to have started as something spontaneous, lighthearted and fun, a recent concert held in South Korea (left) demonstrates how Psy’s piece is now cascading into the same torpor as all other K-Pop girl and boy bands, taking itself too seriously. The same choreography of pretty bubblegum male and female dancers with the same futuristic clothes and flashy lighting effects can be seen as those from a plethora of other K-Pop music videos. Suffice it to compare a scene from the original music video (top) to the post-success concert (left) to sense the stark change in attitude. Clearly, the very thing that made Psy so popular – originality, irony and nonchalance – has been stripped from the performance. As a result, the song is sterilized into a pulp of average K-Pop, castigated back into an unfortunate mediocrity.

Why might this be? An article published on The Economist explains how K-Pop is becoming one of Korea’s soft-culture export successes. Groups like Super Junior or 2NE1 are gaining popularity everywhere. However, the financial returns are scarce: thanks to Korea’s subscription-based music services, people can pay as little as 9,000 won ($8) a month for 150 tracks. This means that an artist can make a miserly 30 won ($0.02) a track. Abroad, the situation is not much better. For instance, iTunes downloads cost $0.99 a song and about 70% of that profit is split between the music labels and the artists. At that rate, SM Entertainment’s boss complains on the Economist, “even 1m downloads cannot cover the cost of making a music video.” The importance of gaining an international audience is crucial for the expansion of K-Pop’s profits. Thus, despite Psy’s eagerness to tell his fans that he is not following the K-Pop mould, in a sense, he must. Whether he now decides to follow the mainstream to appease the Korean industry, or produces new interesting, funny and catchy songs that cajole the industry into follow him instead will define his future success.

Cornell University students emulating the Gangnam Style dance
Cornell University students emulating Psy's Gangnam Style dance

For now, the dance is still new and funny to watch. But a magician can only perform the same trick with the same audience so many times. Gangnam Style’s dance has been emulated all over the world, including many popular American TV shows such as NBC News, Saturday Night Live, and even at Cornell University. The parodies of Gangnam Style abound on YouTube, and even Britney Spears took a stab at those funky moves. Because of this, the horse dance is rapidly becoming the standard. It’s average. It’s safe. Only time can tell whether Psy truly has the character and charisma to create a seismic shift in Korea’s K-Pop culture by providing other breaths of fresh air, or whether he will trade his genius and artistry for the stability of average bubblegum K-Pop.