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The Peninsula

Can Psy Be More than Gangnam Style?

Published November 7, 2012
Author: Sang Kim

By Joyce YunSun Kang

With “Gangnam style” now attracting over 650 million views, Psy (real name: Park Jae-sang) has done what no other South Korean singer has been able to do: successfully break into the mainstream U.S. market. But was this simply a YouTube video gone viral, or something else? Social media played a large role, but other factors such as his label’s marketing strategy coupled with an element of unplanned cultural success also catalyzed the meteoric rise of Psy’s international profile.

Korean entertainment companies used to mainly upload to domestic websites like Nate.com and Bugz Music before recently switching to YouTube in the hope of reaching an increasing number of international fans.  According to Time World, in 2010 YG, SM, and JYP (the three largest music companies in Korea) “garnered 2.3 billion hits in 235 countries, and in the first half of 2011, they got 1.7 billion”. YG Entertainment, home to Psy, used YouTube to release music videos and reveal new music live for the first time.  YG also became a YouTube partner, allowing the company to make revenue through their original content.

Psy moved from managing a company to YG Entertainment in 2010 to focus on his dreams as an artist. Each entertainment company focuses on different artistic elements. SM Entertainment artists, for example, are known for their perfectly uniform choreography. YG Entertainment, on the other hand, encourages artists to sing and dance in their own style instead of being perfectly uniform. YG CEO Yang Hyun-suk told Psy to “go back to his roots” and encouraged him to embrace his creativity. According to Yang, it was Psy’s unique character and ability to differentiate himself that enhanced his appeal in the global market.

“Gangnam style” spread through celebrity promotion on Twitter, the popular blog Gawker.com, and CNN. Artists such as Robbie Williams, Katy Perry, Josh Groban, and T-Pain all tweeted their amusement in watching “Gangnam style”, helping make it go viral across social media channels. So what was it about Psy that was so different to previous attempts to bring K-pop to U.S. shores?

The Success of Unintentional Promotion?

Prior to Psy, South Korean music companies sent popular artists like BoA and Se7en with existing fan bases across the Asia region in an attempt to break the U.S. market. However, these artists met hurdles in accomplishing the same popularity in the American market that they enjoyed throughout Asia. Yang stated Se7en essentially went to the U.S. and “received English lessons due to hardships and stereotypes of Asian artists”.

With mega-group The Wonder Girls opening for the Jonas Brothers U.S. tour, appearing on The Wendy Williams show and even promoting their own movie on Nickelodeon, many may be wondering why Psy is so much better known to the American public.  Even more so when considering The Wonder Girls translated their single “Nobody” to English, a move Psy wholeheartedly rejected for his song.  But might this have been part of the unintended success of “Gangnam Style”?

Unlike previously attempts to spread K-Pop, the fact that Psy’s album was focused on Korean fans, where he is an established singer in Korea and popular for his guerilla concerts and parodies of female artists, contributed to his success. He is also an anomaly in the Korean music industry; 34 years old, married with 2 kids, and slightly pudgy.  In contrast to his teenage K-Pop rivals, Psy did not seek the assistance of famous American choreographers or spend millions on his video production.  Instead, he created a comic, low-budget video that featured cameos from a range of well-known comedians and singers.  Comedian Noh Hong-chul (known as “dancing man in elevator”) was a spur-of-the-moment cameo after visiting the set. Even the featured young boy was called the day before filming began. All of this helped set him apart from the rest, and allowed him to do what he does in Korea: entertain and do it without pressure or expectations.

What Lies in Psy’s Future?

As we know, a viral YouTube video does not guarantee future success. But Psy received a “love call” from Scooter Braun, the American talent manager who founded Justin Bieber through YouTube back in 2008. Braun uses a “cross-promotional” technique employed by many Korean labels. Psy performed with the Wanted and has partied with Usher and Braun. Bieber also recently tweeted lyrics from “Gangnam Style” and retweeted Psy’s response. YG artists are all part of “YG Family” and frequently promote each other’s music, feature in songs, and hold “YG Family” concerts together. Braun will likely use this cross-promotional technique to give more authenticity to Psy in a field with no Korean (and few Asian) singers as he did for Bieber with Usher as his spokesperson in the R&B market.

While some say Psy’s American education and English language skills will be a major factor in furthering his success in the U.S. market, the fact he became popular through a Korean language record suggests this might not be the case. Psy sings almost entirely in Korean and has no plans to make an English-version of “Gangnam style”, claiming it gained popularity nonverbally through dance and sound. Psy has said that Universal Republic Records wants him to continue singing in Korean, a move which may help him continue to stand out. While his English-speaking skills may have assisted him on his (sudden) appearance on talk shows, the skills were not a necessity for his video to go viral.

Psy stated he wants to “show the world what Korean music and concerts are about”.  Yang Hyun Suk emphasized that Psy should help further the Hallyu (Korean popular culture) movement to create more opportunities for future Korean singers. Psy is a symbol and cultural representative of Korea. U.S. ambassador Sung Kim lauded Psy as a “perfect example of growing ties between the U.S. and Korea” and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon graciously gave up his status as “the most famous Korean” to Psy, welcoming more Koreans to “win global fame”. Psy is also being claimed as a success not only for Koreans, but also Asians, and even Asian-Americans. However, if he focuses on his Korean heritage too much over his individual identity, Psy’s global popularity could be diminished in the medium to long term.

In some ways, Psy is much like any other Korean artist. He works under one of the largest labels in Korea, appears on variety shows, and promotes his songs through music programs. Psy global success outside of the Korean Wave does not guarantee future success of Korean singers in the United States. But according to Mark James Russell, “Gangnam Style” could have the same effect as the “Macarena” did in the 1990s. Whether by coincidence or cause-effect, a slew of Latino singers followed. It could also lead to further media coverage and exposure of the Korean Wave. To some degree, Korean artists are entering through the backdoor. Taeyang, also part of YG Entertainment, “reached number 2 on iTunes R&B sales chart in the U.S. and number 1 in Canada” in 2010 without any active promotion.

It will also depend on what type of success entertainment companies and artists are looking for. If they want to further establish themselves in Korea through international popularity, then another YouTube viral video or catchy song could gain enough traction. International success, on the other hand, would mean unique and diverse acts and groups, not an influx of the entire Korean Wave. For Psy, his opportunity for future success was cemented not only the appearances on American TV shows or the branding of “Gangnam Style”. His contract with Scooter Braun combined with his creativity and ability to compose music will be important in legitimizing himself as an artist.

However, if he focuses on his culture and Korean heritage too much over his individual identity, Psy’s global popularity could be diminished. Psy will have to maneuver his Koreanness, unique creativity, and expectations from worldwide fans to see if he can produce another hit and be more than a one hit wonder.

Joyce YunSun Kang graduated from Temple University with degrees in political science and Asian studies. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Korea.net’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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