(Not Quite) Ahead of the Curve: K-Pop’s Biggest Ever U.S. Export

(YouTube video courtesy PSY official channel)

The mindset…is, ‘Dress classy, and dance cheesy.’

— Psy

If the first two-thirds of the summer were owned by Canadian songstress Carly Rae Jepsen (currently on tour with the Biebs) and her video — and assorted synchronized-choreography videos from places like Harvard and Southern Methodist — for the smash Call Me Maybe, then the latter part of the summer going into the upcoming fall season belongs to a slightly chunky, somewhat dorky — but accessible — fellow who is turning out to be South Korea’s biggest export since Hyundai and Samsung.

(YouTube video courtesy PSY official channel)

Yep, that’s right – PSY, with his out-of-nowhere K-pop (Korean pop) Number 1 and Billboard U.S. Top-10 hit and associated beyond-viral video (over 300 million views in 2 1/2 months), Gangnam Style.  He’s become the first Korean artist to achieve a resounding success in North America and worldwide; the previous Billboard high-water mark for a K-pop artist in the U.S. was the #76 charting of the single Nobody by the Wonder Girls.  Around the globe, the song has reached the top of the charts in numerous countries, including Belgium, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

For the record, Psy (birth name, Jae-Sang Park; according to the Los Angeles Times, his father is the director and controlling stockholder in a Korean semiconductor firm) has been active in Korean music circles since 2001, when his first album was released; Gangnam Style is the first release from his sixth album (and first in two years), entitled PSY’s Best 6th Part 1.  Interestingly enough, Psy has a previous connection to the United States; before his music career started, he attended a pair of American schools, Boston University and the Berklee School of Music, also in Boston.

Along the way, Psy has generated his share of controversies, as one might expect from a rapper:  his first album was censored and second album was banned outright by South Korean authorities; he was forced to perform his mandatory Korean military service twice; and he was heavily fined after an arrest for pot possession.  Regardless, his Korean popularity remained strong, despite a pair of recording hiatuses.

For those who might not yet be clued in, the video for Gangnam Style, which American Idol creator and current X-Factor judge Simon Cowell called “brilliant” on a recent episode of Ellen, is an insanely inventive and creative pastiche of scenes of Psy doing his “invisible horse dance” while gallivanting through parts of the high-end Gangnam district of Seoul, from where the song takes its name. The video culminates in a Bollywood-style mass dance where he’s joined by K-pop starlet Hyuna Kim from the group 4minute.  Psy and Hyuna have also released a duet version of Gangnam Style, entitled Oppa (Korean for “big brother”) Is Just My Style; the video for this version has received just over 58 million views.

In recent weeks, Psy has taken advantage of his new-found Western popularity, signing a U.S. record deal with Scooter Braun (the manager of the aforementioned Bieber and Jepsen) and Schoolboy Records; and making appearances on a pair of Los Angeles radio stations (97.1 Amp Radio and 102.7 KIIS FM), as well as the Today show, VH1, TMZ, a cameo on Saturday Night Live, two stops on Ellen, and the iHeartRadio music festival.  Before that, he also made a now-famous appearance at a Los Angeles Dodger game, shortly after word of the video began circulating outside South Korea.

Among news and entertainment coverage from sources as disparate as CNN and the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic has an interesting chart showing how the view totals of his video spiked, as compared to the steady increase over a longer period for Jepsen’s video, while both the Atlantic and EW.com have intriguing breakdowns and analysis of the video’s imagery and how it subtly (and “subversively”) parodies the conspicuous-consumption lifestyle of nouveau-riche Koreans.

The challenge for Psy now, is whether or not he can convert his Gangnam success into an English-language hit.  He has said that his next challenge will be to prepare a new album for the American market, which may combine English-language works with some of his previous Korean releases (including, of course, Gangnam Style).


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