With 1 414 645 794 YouTube views and counting, “Gangnam Style” hardly needs an introduction. If you haven’t seen the music video – either voluntarily or by coercion – you must have been living under a rock this year. Armed with a catchy tune, infectious choreography and a quirky music video, Korean hip-hop artist Park Jae-Sang, a.k.a PSY, single-handedly captured the hearts and dance-floors of audiences across the globe. Heck, the trademark “horse dance” even sent one Brit to his grave. With a Super Bowl commercial (selling pistachios?), a New Year’s Eve performance at Times Square and multiple stints on daytime television shows, PSY has become one of the most successful offerings of the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, a term coined to define the growing interest in South Korean culture and entertainment that has swept across Asia, and is gradually making its way to American shores.
The Korean music industry has rapidly expanded to become a multi-billion dollar business, and churns out legions of young pop-stars on a monthly basis. Over the past few years, many big names in Korean entertainment like Rain, SE7EN, BoA, the Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation have tried to break into the American scene. However, most of these acts failed to generate enough buzz to be taken seriously. Then along comes PSY, a 35-year-old performer who, unintentionally, proceeded to explode onto the international scene. So, how did he do it? In recent interviews, PSY himself admits to having no idea how his single sparked an international sensation. In fact, he often wonders if anyone, including himself, will ever be able to top “Gangnam Style” s success. Whether he can follow up with another hit or not, the song has had a significant impact not only on popular culture as we know it, but also on how the rest of the world perceives South Korea. Picking up on this new trend, several big names in American music, including Will.i.am, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz and Teddy Riley, have started collaborating with Korean artists in the hope of creating the next big thing.
It must be noted that, unlike his contemporaries, PSY remained true to his image and did not try to anglicize himself for his international debut. He performed in Korean (although the “Heyyy, sexy lady!” hook seemed to transcend national boundaries) and was pleasantly surprised by the warm reception he received.
South Korea has also been reaping the benefits of PSY’s success. It was recently reported that registration has risen dramatically for the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK), a written test for non-Koreans interested in pursuing a career or education in South Korea, from 2692 applicants in 1997 to 151,166 in 2012. Korean tourism organizations also see the benefits of cashing in on the growing interests of international tourists. The Gangnam district in Southern Seoul has become a local hotspot for high-end fashion boutiques and plastic surgery clinics. District officials expect to develop a ‘Hallyu Start Street’ by 2015, paving a section of the street using stones set with Korean celebrities’ handprints, not unlike Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The entire project, a very ambitious investment, may cost up to 20 million U.S dollars. And to think that it all began with a viral music video.
So the next time you hear that all-too familiar beat, turn it up and jump onto your saddle, because Gangnam fever is here to stay.