Dissecting the Gangnam Wave

Let’s talk Gangnam-style. After 2 initial failures, PSY has become the first Korean music act to make it big across the Pacific, capturing an international market. No one can doubt that the Gangnam track on his 6th album, PSY’s Best 6th Part 1, is fun, catchy and brings smiles to the faces of people in the midst of a global downturn.

Getting to this stage was not an easy feat for Hangul (whose stage name is PSY). After graduating from the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, PSY’s first 2 albums produced at the turn of the millennium received a ban and then an adult rating, significantly shrinking the size of the audience he hoped to command. A decade down the road, his patience has paid off. The world listens and parties to Gangnam Style. The music video has garnered a stunning 49 million views (and counting) on YouTube, trouncing that of any other K-pop star’s best effort to date. People emulate his simple trademark dance moves on every continent. Even riding on this wave, popular YouTube channel, ‘Teen’s React’, a subset of the React series, has done a special feature clip on the Gangnam wave.

Dissecting PSY’s success, there is no question about the extent of the Gangnam wave. Like a tsunami, the name Gangnam splashed upon every continent, stirring up ripple effects of people reproducing it on their own in spoofs and tributes. However, what really contributed ti PSY’s overnight successes? Here is a breakdown:

1. Gangnam did not create its own wave, but simple rode upon the ripple effect of the LMFAO “fun song” craze. Remember ‘Party Rock Anthem’? A brief comparison of Gangnam with Party Rock (as with any other LMFAO hit) and we see a similar formula for success: a straight beat track with catchy lyrics; a dance-like synth motif that people find easy to listen to. They are both upbeat (actually of the same tempo); fun in nature and have their own catchy dance style that is easy to learn. The only difference is the language. Here is the issue: Is Gangnam really a wave on its own or is it riding the fading ripples of Party Rock?

2. Did anyone notice that the choreography is a derivative of the famous “Visa dance” (ed. in turn inspired by ‘Where the Hell is Matt?‘, an early YouTube sensation)? The old Visa advertisement had people dancing on the streets and acting goofy for the camera. They did that, on every continent, in different cities. Here, we have exactly the same thing. PSY goes to town: Oppa Gangnam style. PSY meets a girl at the park: Oppa Gangnam style. PSY has a nice time at the hot springs: Oppa Gangnam style. Where is the creative part? Moreover, the “Visa dance” has people bouncing in the streets, swinging their arms as if they were monkeying around. “Gangnam style” has PSY (with cameos) bouncing in the streets (and studios too), with hands crossed in front of him, moving in a goofy fashion. There is little creativity from that angle, but people remember.

3. Those who have watched the music video may not have realised this but Gangnam is highly similar to a “Mr Bean” clip, with music and dance moves thrown in. This is Korean satire, and satire works well in capturing the world’s eyeballs, especially America’s. This is why PSY was able to break into the mainstream with his version of K-pop, making it big where other famous K-pop groups such as Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls have tried and failed. PSY’s absolutely ridiculous choreography has struck and stuck. People love the Asian clown. Remember William Hung from American Idol? He had the same thing going for him. One bad audition for Simon Cowell and gang, one simplistic arm swing to one simple song, and Mr Hung had his moment of fame. PSY is now experiencing the same thing. He is simply doing so with more panache. Yet, endorsing Gangnam is still giving support to the idea of an Asian guy acting the clown to get attention, much like a child prancing around, asking for his cheeks to be pinched… hard.

It is pretty disappointing to see that a talented Asian musician has to resort to all of the above to get his fair share of “fame pie”. However, it is to PSY’s credit that despite his age (at 34) and his obvious lack of plastic surgery that his many Korean counterparts have invested in, he has still made it big huge. It might have taken time, but he is nonetheless a major ground-breaker — the first ever K-pop star to gain international attention solely by being himself.

The K-pop industry could stand to break the mindset that only the beautiful have the opportunity to enjoy the breakthroughs they seek. While Gangnam seems like a copycat of many Western products in the entertainment line, PSY has shown that riding upon the successes of others from time to time can give one a real shot at fame.


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