‘Gangnam Style’ at 10: How Psy’s smash hit sent Korean culture global
by Liz Kang & Jane Sit | CNN
The early 2010s were an era of instant hits. From the “Harlem Shake” to “Party Rock Anthem”, digital platforms ushered in a new era of publicity — and virality.
On July 15, 2012, South Korean singer and rapper Psy broke onto the global music scene with a bright blue tuxedo, an unforgettable horse-riding dance and an energetic beat that dropped to the catchy lyric, “Oppan Gangnam style.”
“Gangnam Style” soon went viral, making waves around the world. The song hijacked the airwaves, the music video flooded Facebook timelines and Psy’s slicked-back hair and sunglasses showed up on American late-night 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 hit 1 billion views on YouTube.
Psy, who was already popular in his home country but barely known globally, quickly became one of the most recognizable artists in the world. 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 from Seoul, the whirlwind success was something he could have never imagined.
In an interview ahead of the song’s 10-year anniversary, he compares that period of his life to celebrating a birthday. “On the day before, you’re excited in anticipation,” 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 considered a major catalyst in the “Korean wave”, or “hallyu”, a term describing the recent proliferation of Korean culture internationally — something the South Korean government has been attempting to push through music and media since the 1990s.
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According to Gyu Tag Lee, an associate professor of cultural studies specializing in K-pop and hallyu at George Mason University’s South Korean campus, it was “Gangnam Style” that gave Korean pop culture mainstream recognition outside of East Asia.
“These kinds of going-viral-on-the-internet media platforms, (such as) YouTube, made K-pop and hallyu really popular and big overseas,” he says.