Gangnam Style, YouTube and the cult of social media

PC World looks at what effect YouTube and social networks have on the spread of memes

Buy me a pony: South Korean pop artist PSY (third from left) in a scene from his cult music video, Gangdam Style

Buy me a pony: South Korean pop artist PSY (third from left) in a scene from his cult music video, Gangdam Style

By now, there is a big chance that you have come into contact with the Gangnam Style phenomenon that is sweeping the world. The pop single by the South Korean rapper PSY has already gained over 175 million views on YouTube (at publication time) two months after it was uploaded, resulting in numerous parody and cover videos. Due to this worldwide recognition, PSY was invited to perform at the 2012 MTV VMAs and on the The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

The interesting thing about this situation is that there is nothing new or remarkable about Gangnam Style. The Korean pop, or K-pop, industry has been producing similar music videos for many years, and even PSY has been releasing his oddball style of pop music for well over a decade. In fact, the Gangnam Style single comes from his sixth most recent album. So what exactly made him an unexpected global star in 2012?

Turn the beat around

While the song is catchy in itself, the worldwide appeal of Gangnam Style can be attributed to its promotional music video. After all, unless one is proficient in Korean, then the comedic lyrical content of the song (which pokes fun at the luxurious lifestyle associated with the Gangnam district in South Korea) will most likely be lost on the majority of listeners. By far, it was the video on YouTube that helped to not only expose the song to a worldwide audience, but also encourage people to share it with their extended friend networks.

Oddball humour, amusing choreography, silly dance moves, garish colours and interesting set pieces, Gangnam Style has them all. Top it off with a catchy song accompanied by a strong beat, and it is not hard to see why the song has become popular. The question then becomes not why it became popular, but why now, especially considering that similar music videos have existed in the past in one form or another.

For example, in 2006 Japanese pop artist DJ Ozma released a cover of the 1999 single, Soon Jung (or Sunjon), by Korean pop group KOYOTE. The song seemed to have the same elements from Gangnam Style: the catchy melody, chorography, dance moves, costumes, and set pieces. The difference is that DJ Ozma’s Sunjon never went supernova on YouTube, with only 1.5 million views after five years.

Why Gangnam Style hit off in a big way and Sunjon did not can be attributed to how different the Internet landscape now is compared to what it was half a decade ago. Back in 2006, social networks such as Twitter and Facebook were mere start-ups and MySpace was struggling to attain mass adoption. So even though DJ Ozma’s Sunjon contained most of the elements that have made Gangnam Style popular, it largely went unnoticed by the online sphere. Which is unsurprising, considering the world back then was not quite as interconnected and exposed as it is now.

Talking ‘bout pop music

Fast forward to 2012 and there are more than 955 million Facebook and 500 million Twitter users worldwide. A wacky music video from South Korea called Gangnam Style appears on YouTube and people start spreading the link to their friends, who then share the video with their friends. Word of mouth via social networks helps drive views for the video, as well as comments on YouTube. Even celebrities start posting about the song on their own social network accounts. Soon the phenomenon is too big to ignore and the mainstream media picks up on it.

Maybe Gangnam Style just did the whole wacky music video shtick better than other ones did in the past. Maybe it just ramped up the humour and wackiness to a higher level than DJ Ozma’s Sunjon, which then enabled it to stand out. The more likely explanation, though, is that it had the benefit from debuting in a time where people worldwide are more interconnected than ever before. This is due to the mainstream adoption of social networks, as well as people having the tools and means to share content with a bigger audience than in the past.

If social networks such as Facebook and Twitter helped make PSY a star overnight and his Gangnam Style single an unlikely worldwide hit, then it will be interesting to see how this newfound fame will play out in the future for the artist, his popularity, and his music. Having tasted global success off the back of Gangnam Style, will PSY attempt to replicate the success with future albums and singles in the same vein? Will he attempt to outdo himself with even more outlandish choreography, dancing and singing?

One can turn to the rise and fall of the Numa Numa Song that swept the Internet blogosphere in 2004 as a cautionary tale. Unwittingly released on, the video featured someone sitting in front of a computer lipsynching and gesticulating to the song Dragostea Din Tei by Moldovan pop group, O-Zone. The video eventually gained over 700 million views on YouTube and catapulted the creator of the video into Internet stardom. But when the creator tried to capitalise on his newfound fame with a professionally produced follow-up video, titled New Numa, it did not quite set the world on fire the second time around.

Hot town, summer in the city

Whatever the outcome, Gangnam Style is an example of what can be achieved on the Internet by offering the right content for the right audience at the right time. If one probes deeper, the appeal of Gangnam Style may not be in what we see and hear, but what we may feel. When asked about his inspiration behind the song, PSY said that it was a combination of the weather in South Korea being too hot during the summer, as well as the poor state of the local economy. That is why PSY aimed to make all aspects of the song “full of gusto.”

In a post-GFC and global warming era, maybe those are the real reasons for why the music video resonated with YouTube users around the world. Either that or it was the coordinated dance routine that mimics riding an invisible horse.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World
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