This is part 2 of Charley Reed’s guest post on the global phenomenon (even galactic at times) Gangnam Style! You can read Part 1 – What the heck is Gangnam Style, anyways? here.
There is no telling what plans manager Scooter Braun has for Psy, and if he will expand his crossover star status to a full-fledged worldwide media icon – or if he will fall victim to the same flash-in-the-pan status as Los del Rio and The Macarena () or Major Tom and Nena and 99 Luft Baloons. However, what we can say about the impact of Psy and Gangam Style is that it has, at least, for the moment, broken a number of records, boundaries, and expectations for what media experts have traditionally considered to be popular music, including:
1. YouTube Rules, MTV Drools
It’s not a surprise to anyone who is considered a Digital Native, but YouTube is head-and-shoulders the music video hub of the world; this, despite the fact that YouTube hasn’t even been around a full decade.
The role of YouTube today is reminiscent of MTV in the 1980s – that’s Music Television by the way – when it literally launched a revolution by dedicating an entire cable channel to playing music videos.
Even though MTV still exists, along with supposedly music-driven channels like VH1, BET, and CMT, it is YouTube that is king. Not only did YouTube launch Justin Bieber’s career and give Korea its first crossover hit in the United States, but also it is one of the few places that you can find music videos anymore and talk about them with your friends.
2. I’ve Got 99 Problems But Geography Ain’t One
By this point, anyone who has been on the Internet has encountered a meme or flash-in-the-pan star (Rebecca Black anyone?) but one of the things that makes the Gangam Style video so unique is that, up until Gangam Style, Korea had never really broken into the U.S. market in the same way that Hispanic artists (Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Selena, etc…), British artists (Adele, Coldplay, Muse, etc…), or even German (Rammstein), Russia (t.A.T.u), and Japanese artists (Dir en Grey) have. However, the fact that the song is in Korean hasn’t impacted its popularity; if anything, it has accelerated it.
What is interesting to note, however, is that KPop actually has a huge Internet following and the only thing that really helped Psy break into more traditional media and news outlets was the speed with which his video became popular. It was only within the last month or so that “Gangam Style” even became available for download on iTunes or began appearing on radio stations, by which time the popularity of the video had already reached its peak.
And, lest I forget – it is important to mention that Psy’s YouTube predecessor, Justin Beiber, is also an imported star that originally lived in Canada before moving to the U.S. after signing a recording contract.
3. PSY Does NOT stand for Pretty, Sexy, or Young
What is also unique about Psy, is that even for Korean standards, he doesn’t fit the traditional mold for a pop star. Psy is a man that is slightly overweight, balding, and in his mid-30s, which is far removed from his video co-star, HYUNA (), who is much more like America’s version of Britney Spears.
Now, this isn’t to say that America hasn’t had its share of non-traditional pop stars like the bands OK Go and Green Day, as well as singles artists like Lou Bega and Cee-Lo Green, but usually if there are additional barriers to entry like a foreign language or cultural references, it helps to have a Westernized appearance of beauty.
4. Stardom Trumps Satire
In a media environment where those in power hate to be criticized, unless they have the power to shut that criticism down like the jesters in the king’s court, controversy is a fine line that people have to walk. Some, like Lady Gaga, court controversy not by what they say, but what they wear. Others, like Lisa Lampanelli, make controversy comfortable within the context of a comedy routine. However, popular music has only rarely courted controversy with punk and pop-punk bands being the main exception. Even when bubble gum pop stars to delve into the realm of controversy, their songs are pacified, like Cee-Lo Green did with Forget You ( NSWF Language), or, like Green Day, are eventually rejected by some listeners who don’t want to involve politics with their music.
With Psy, his critique of Korea and the Gangam lifestyle is particularly biting according to some analyses and creative speech in countries like Korea and Japan, despite their advances over the last century, is not as celebrated as it is in America. In fact, due its content, Psy’s second album was banned from being sold to anyone under age 19 and his legacy became that of a controversial artist. Now that Psy is at the top of the charts internationally, it will almost certainly trump any criticisms from those in Korea about the song’s content. One has to wonder, however, if the same would could be said if Psy’s song was only moderately popular, like his other works.
In my opinion, all four of these concepts point to a shifting media environment that helped Psy and Gangam Style become as popular as it has. Even 30 years ago when MTV first launched, there was very little chance that a foreign singer, who sang in their own native language, would ever make it big enough to become top-selling artist in the United States – though it did happen – not because people didn’t necessarily want it, but because in order to hear it people would have had to watch MTV or listen to the radio, all of which was and is filtered through countless managers, editors, marketing representatives, and number crunchers looking for a return on their investment. Today, the level of investment is minimal and the benefits are huge, but the competition is stiffer and the public’s taste is more fickle than ever. Similarly, audiences are more accustom to profanity, sexual content and political criticism in pop songs, and despite what can or can’t be shown on television or played on the radio, artists like Psy, or, more notably, Amanda F**king Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, can still make an impact in the music industry.
So, to answer the question – What is Gangam Style? Well, for some it is a social critique, for others it’s a silly pop song, but for me, Gangam Style as a piece of online media is an example of just how significantly the entertainment landscape has changed and, given the rapidness with which the video reached its popularity, how quickly additional changes could appear and reshape what we think we know about media. That said, many of the “revelations” I have pointed to validate the seven truths of media that Ralph often points to. So, in closing, the ultimate question, perhaps, isn’t “What is Gangam Style?” but instead, “Why Not Gangam Style?”
American teens react to Psy’s Gangnam Style: