PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ at 10: how the viral hit pushed K-pop forward in the west

How the satirical and endlessly meme-able single helped to further crack open the door for Korean artists

Attention-grabbing EDM synths. A chaotic music video sending up boastful materialism. A horse-riding dance move tailor-made for memes. The now global catchphrase “Oppa Gangnam Style“. All these elements and more made PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’, released a decade ago today (July 15), a cultural phenomenon that would shake up not just K-pop but the world.

At the time of its release back in 2012, K-pop had already proved its international potential, winning over fans in areas across Asia and the Middle East. But it was still under the radar in the west. Artists had made a bid to change that – like when Wonder Girls toured North America in 2010 or when Girls’ Generation released an English-language version of their 2011 song ‘The Boys’ – but, at that point, there had only been small sparks of interest.

As ‘Gangnam Style’ steadily gained pace, racking up views on YouTube, topping charts around the world (except in the US, where it was kept off the top by Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’), those flames of fascination started to grow. The smash hit single served as an introduction to K-pop for many, curious listeners delving deeper into the Korean music scene and finding new artists they enjoyed. In 2013, a year into the song’s grip on the world, the online viewership for K-pop artists had doubled in the US since ‘Gangnam Style’ cantered onto the landscape, as data from Google showed.

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The burgeoning interest in K-pop was visible not just on new fans’ internet histories, but on television screens across America, too. In November 2012, an episode of Ryan Murphy’s hit TV series Glee found the teen performers recreating ‘Gangnam Style’ and training to BIGBANG’s ‘Fantastic Baby’, bringing Korean lyrics and choreos directly into homes across the country.

‘Gangnam Style’’s impact was undeniable but, while it brought more attention to K-pop, it didn’t transform it into a mainstream success in the west where every other artist was suddenly being afforded radio play and big tours. While PSY may have seemed to make splashier progress than the artists before him who’d tried to crack America, plenty of work remained to open the door for other Korean artists.

The very nature of ‘Gangnam Style’ itself – lyrics almost entirely in Korean, the video deliberately designed to tickle the internet’s meme-making abilities – likely made it easier for western listeners to write it off as a one-hit-wonder. Its larger-than-life, cartoonish presentation was read by some as a gimmicky novelty, while its satirical social commentary on the lifestyle in Seoul’s Gangnam district and people trying to live up to its lavish standards – even if they weren’t in its world – was lost on an international audience unfamiliar with the Korean language.

PSY performing Gangnam Style in 2012
PSY performing ‘Gangnam Style’ at a football game in Toronto in 2012. Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

None of that is the fault of PSY, of course – he’s previously said the track wasn’t written with a worldwide audience in mind, but a local one. Though ‘Gangnam Style’ was setting K-pop up for more interesting lyrical dives into the state of society in the future, a lack of knowledge, ignorance and preconceived notions about K-pop reduced it to that main chorus line and dance move. It became an oddity that could be treated with a dearth of seriousness.

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Despite being incredibly successful for PSY, the star has spoken about the song’s negative impact on himself as an artist, too. For years, he felt trapped by ‘Gangnam Style’ and the pressure to create something as successful on such a large stage. At a press conference for his latest album ‘PSY 9th’, which was released in April, he recalled: “There were even people who thought my name was ‘Gangnam Style’. Some people overseas who would say ‘Hi, Gangnam Style’.”

At the same event, he discussed the “permanence and persistence” that acts like BTS and BLACKPINK have shown in their own journeys in the international arena. PSY might not have been able to replicate ‘Gangnam Style’’s dominance but, with that song, he made an incredible contribution to pushing K-pop forward and helping give the artists following him a helping hand.

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