The PSY Phenomenon: What I see as a casual K-pop fan in America

I like k-pop.  It’s a genre of music that has undeniably enjoyed a growing mainstream popularity abroad as of late.  But in order to better understand the overseas appeal, it’s important to consider what defines that popularity domestically.  In South Korea, mainstream k-pop music has quite a few de facto standards that have typically defined major success in its industry over the last 20 years or so.  I’ll cover five of the most prevalent current norms of mainstream k-pop success and then explain how PSY has broken all of them – and a few world records in the process.

The K-pop Takeover?

Gangnam Style Official Cover

“…realize that this man took down prime Justin Bieber…”

The “Hallyu wave”, or the worldwide spread of Korean culture, is reminiscent of when Japanese game shows hit it big in the American pop culture scene – that is, they seemingly came from out of nowhere, and were aided in large part by viral videos.  (Anyone remember Silent Library and Human Tetris?)

You’ve listened to k-pop too.  Unless you’ve avoided television, arena events, the internet, your local bowling alley, sunlight…pretty much any human contact over the past year, I’m going to state a fact: you know PSY and you’ve heard “Gangnam Style.”  (Probably more often than you would have liked.)  PSY has appeared on the Ellen Degeneres Show, acted in a commercial for pistachios, shimmied live onstage with MC Hammer, and – oh yeah, released mega viral music videos.  His most recent MV, “Gentleman” already has over 100 million views in just 3 days on YouTube and “Gangnam Style” remains at a colossal 1.5 billion views.  (+1 to both if you clicked on the links above.)  But even if you didn’t know all that, realize that this man took down prime Justin Bieber as the owner of the most viewed music video on the internet.  (And at this point, the most viewed YouTube video, period.)

A Different Perspective

Girls' Generation group shot

As someone who is semi-cognizant of the current Korean pop music/entertainment industry, I want to offer you a slightly different perspective and elaborate on the extent of PSY’s success in ways you may not be aware of.  Particularly, his success relative to other mainstream k-pop “standards.”

For those unfamiliar with mainstream k-pop, here are 5 brief, simplified points to consider:

  1. In k-pop, idol groups are king.  A recent trend, the new generation of k-pop can almost be compared to the 90’s boy band fad here in America.  To many it’ll seem like these groups have employed a decree of, “the more the merrier” as there can be upwards of 7-9 members in a single group.  This is normal.
  2. It’s standard for idols to look as beautiful as possible – seriously, both the gals and the dudes.  It’s probably no surprise then, that most of these groups’ core audiences are made up of teens and younger adults.  (Mixed gender idol groups are very rare.)
  3. Most k-pop groups have “concepts” and can convert their entire personas.  This includes their outfits and hairstyles depending on the genre of the specific single they’re promoting.  In other words, they can have a “cute” pop music concept one day, and switch to a stank face hip-hop concept a few months down the line for a new song and dance.
  4. K-pop groups tend to release “mini-albums.”  These mini-albums contain about 3-5 tracks, including 1 single that the group promotes heavily on live music programs.
  5. Idols typically perform their songs and dances on several daily/weekly music shows.  By the end of the show, a winner is selected based on a mathematical formula that usually includes digital sales, album sales, and overall fan support (not even going to pretend I know how they measure this one).  They make all the performers of that day stand together on stage amidst their peers, and the hosts then award the winner(s) a small trophy under an explosion of confetti as the show comes to a close.

PsyduckAs you can see, the landscape is quite different from what we’re used to in the United States.  I’m not even sure what the equivalent of #5 would be in America.  I guess it’s as if (warning: incoming 90’s reference) The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears performed everyday against each other and the other 8 artists in the TRL top 10 countdown, and Carson Daly gave the winner a little plaque while 3rd and 4th placed Destiny’s Child and Blink-182 stood alongside on stage as the closing credits rolled.

Anyone?  No one?  Alright, let’s move on.  So now let’s examine each of the above points and note how PSY contrasts in his execution.

My Way Or The PSY Way

  1. Group Mentality: PSY of course is a solo artist, and this obviously strays from the k-pop group norm, but something to point out about his music videos is that he’s not truly “alone.”  They feature tons of guest celebrities that add to the overall appeal and impact.  For instance: that pelvic thrusting man in the elevator?  Noh Hong-Chul, a comedian and TV personality.  That man in the yellow suit with sunglasses?  Yoo Jae-Suk, Korea’s “National MC” and variety show host.  Those young women dancing with PSY?  Ga-In of the idol group, Brown Eyed Girls and Kim Hyuna, of 4Minute.  (You may even recognize Hyuna from her solo Bubble Pop MV that went viral on YouTube before “Gangnam Style” did.)
  2. The Beautiful People: PSY is pretty far off from your typical tall, slender, male k-pop idol.  But he has an edge over all of them which guaranteed his impact – a wider core audience age range.  When you break the typical pretty boy mold, your audience is no longer initially sectioned off into tweens and teens.  Like all great modern viral videos, PSY’s are in part, random but most importantly, they’re funny.  And that has allowed him to broaden his appeal to children as well as older adults.  The man incorporated farting on his hand and placing it in front a woman’s face into a music video seen by millions.  Let’s give him his props.
  3. Concept Chameleon: Observing his past two music videos, so far PSY has created a concept for himself that he hasn’t really deviated from.  It’s an identity that can last a long, long time.  It’s also a smart move.  He’s instantly recognizable by his slicked back hair, sunglasses, loud suits, cheesy dancing, but most of all – by his persona.
  4. Album Release: PSY feeds on a system that’s primarily driven not by album dissemination or digital sales, but by content on the internet and social media.  (How many people even know that “Gangnam Style” is a single off of PSY’s 6th album?)  It’s a timely model that’s dependent upon releasing successful viral singles and so far he’s delivered, big time.
  5. PSY Music Bank win screen

    PSY’s Music Bank dominance and record-setting win streak

    Music Programs: During the height of PSY’s astronomical run with “Gangnam Style”, he was routinely crushing all competition on these daily music shows, one of which was “Music Bank.”  It became such a beast of a song that it shortly began shattering all previously held records.  The kicker?  PSY was never physically there to perform or even collect the winner’s trophy from the hosts.  Music Bank would literally place a picture of him up on the screen as the typical confetti rained from the ceiling and the other idols stood awkwardly on stage watching PSY take the award (well, not literally – he wasn’t there) a record setting number of times.  To really frame this incredible run, “Gangnam Style” first broke the Music Bank record for most overall show wins, and later went on to break the consecutive wins record on a separate occasion.  That’s domination.

Some k-pop fans contend that PSY isn’t “real” k-pop, but I’d argue that he is the quintessential representative of what mainstream k-pop is – he simply executes differently.  At its core, mainstream k-pop utilizes catchy hook songs with appealing, synchronized dance moves that are easily imitated by the masses.  What PSY and his company have accomplished so well is elevating those very moves and hooks to such a unique level of silliness and ease that suddenly “the masses” becomes a term that equates to hundreds of millions of people globally – “말이야!” (“Literally!”)

And you don’t need to be a k-pop fan to see that’s success.

Click here to see my follow up post on the human cost of building a K-pop idol group

4/18/13 Update:  Here’s a bonus video from MBC Entertainment that summarizes some additional aspects of PSY’s videos that you would have only picked up on if you were familiar with the Korean Entertainment industry.


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2 Responses to The PSY Phenomenon: What I see as a casual K-pop fan in America

  1. Pingback: 2,460 Frames – 1,357 Hours – 288,000 Jelly Beans | The Internaut

  2. Pingback: The (Human) Cost of Building a K-pop Idol Group | The Internaut

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