‘Gangnam Style’ at 10: How Psy’s Hit Spread Korean Culture Worldwide

Written by Liz Kang, CNNJane Sit, CNN

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

On July 15, 2012, South Korean singer and rapper Psy stormed the global music scene with a light blue tuxedo, an unforgettable horse dance, and a high-energy beat that led to the catchy lyrics “Oppan Gangnam Style.”

“Gangnam Style” soon went viral and made waves around the world. The song hit the airwaves, the music video flooded Facebook timelines, and Psy’s slicked-back hair and sunglasses appeared on American late-night shows. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in September before climbing to No. 1 two weeks later. It was also the first video to reach 1 billion views on YouTube.

The music video for “Gangnam Style” was the first video to hit 1 billion views on YouTube in 2012. Recognition: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

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

In an interview ahead of the song’s 10th anniversary, he compared that period of his life to celebrating a birthday. “You’re so excited the day before,” he tells CNN from the Seoul headquarters of P-Nation, the record label and entertainment agency he founded in 2018. “And then on the day of… it’s all a little wild and crazy.”

But the song’s impact stretched far beyond the music industry. In fact, the success of “Gangnam Style” is credited as a major catalyst for the “Korean wave” or “hallyu,” a term used to describe the recent international spread of Korean culture — something the South Korean government has been trying to enforce through music and media since the 1990s years.

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

“These kind of viral Internet media platforms like YouTube have really made K-pop and Hallyu popular and big overseas,” he says.

pave the way

A decade later, South Korean talent has reached new levels of global popularity and fan base.

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 discuss Asian representation and anti-Asian hate crimes. Girl group Blackpink, meanwhile, performed at the Coachella music festival and collaborated with the likes of Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez, with its four members joining any major brand or luxury fashion house as ambassadors.

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

“Without the big hit ‘Gangnam Style,’ BTS might not have existed, Blackpink might not have existed,” says Lee.

BTS has often quoted and thanked Psy for his help in globalizing K-pop. One of the boy band members, Suga, even co-produced and contributed to “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 signature humor and has already racked up more than 272 million views on YouTube.

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

“He paved the way for K-pop in the US, which allowed (BTS) to be more comfortable following that path,” says Suga.

And the appreciation is mutual. “I think it’s an incredible achievement,” says Psy of BTS’s success. “Every single part of me is applauding them and cheering them on. This heavy burden I felt in 2012 — BTS has been shouldering that for six or seven years now.”

Beyond records

For Psy, there has always been a different side to his worldwide success. As excited and happy as he was during those “Gangnam Style” days, he said he felt “just too overwhelmed” and “a little empty inside” when he was performing and on the go.

Fame also brought new expectations — and pressure to make more hits.

“If the song is a hit, then your songs have to keep being hits,” he says. “If the person is a hit, the success is more sustainable. In this case, I’m the former and BTS is the latter.”

While Psy could never repeat the success of “Gangnam Style,” he’s spent the last decade proving himself as a musician and dancer with a unique drive for entertainment. Since 2012 he has released three full-length albums that showcase his diverse style – from the dance hits for which he is best known, to softer, rhythmic ballads reminiscent of his earlier work. Since founding P-Nation, he has used the label to discover, develop and creatively support the next generation of South Korean acts.

Psy at a press conference for his new album

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

Between all of this, Psy is still filling venues in his home country. His annual Summer Swag concert series 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 satisfied at this moment.”

And his mission hasn’t changed since his breakout hit: “Make fun music, do fun dances, and bring joy to my fans.”

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

Caption above: Park Jae-Sang, also known as Psy, performs “Gangnam Style” to an audience during a flash mob in Paris on November 5, 2012.

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