Korean pop music – or K-pop – is enjoying a boost outside Asia thanks to a recent summer hit by one of its rappers. But is it poised to take over the music world or is it merely the internet meme of the moment?
‘EHHHHHHHHHHH… SEXY LADY!!’
Okay, so it’s not exactly Lennon and McCartney, or even Hall and Oates, but it is a piece of songwriting that has caught the music world’s imagination.
South Korean rapper PSY (short for ‘psycho’) has been a fairly established artist in his home country for more than a decade, but in the last two months he has become something of a global sensation.
The reason? His hit song, Gangnam Style, and the video which accompanies it, a video which has been viewed more than 131m times since it was uploaded on YouTube in mid-July.
The song, which takes its title from an affluent area in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is a tongue-in-cheek look at the country’s rich elite. With some invisible horse-riding dance moves thrown in.
The combination of a ridiculously catchy tune and a suitably ludicrous video – needless explosions, speedboats and a dance-off in a multi-storey car park all feature – has made the song a viral hit.
It has also catapulted 34-year-old PSY, whose real name is Park Jae-Sang, into the Western music market. He appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards last week and has signed a deal with Scooter Braun, who manages Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen.
With the help of one video, albeit a video in which he pretends he is a dancing jockey, PSY has become the most successful export in Korean pop (K-pop) history.
And yet PSY isn’t indicative of K-pop at all. While his songs fit the dance/electronic/hip hop feel of the genre, he plays by his own rules, choreographing his own videos and sound. Most successful K-pop acts tend to be either girl or boy bands. Among the biggest K-pop acts are all male group BIGBANG and girl bands 2NE1 and Girls’ Generation.
‘To say that PSY is representative of the rest of K-pop is a bit like saying that LMFAO are the band who best depict Western pop music,’ said Robert Leedham, pop editor at music website Drowned in Sound.
‘The likes of 2NE1 and BIGBANG certainly have a taste for high-energy theatrics but they don’t reek of the same novelty value.’
So what is it about Gangnam Style that has made it such a worldwide viral hit?
‘It’s the ultimate collision of atrocious and amazing,’ said Mr Leedham.
‘Without wishing to disparage PSY’s obvious talent, I don’t think the track would have come anywhere close to the undeniable phenomenon it now is without its accompanying video.
‘Like the best K-pop, it’s a complete sensory overload but, most importantly from a Western audience’s perspective, it’s 100 per cent aware of its own ridiculousness.’
But can PSY open the floodgates for the Korean wave into the music market in the US and in Britain?
‘I’d be really surprised if K-pop managed to bridge the language barrier and truly cross over into the UK,’ said Mr Leedham.
‘Like Eurovision, I think it’s a genre of music which has undoubtedly gathered a cult following and will occasionally gate-crash the mainstream. For better or for worse, PSY has managed to grab a global audience’s attention but I doubt he’ll be able to hold it for long.’
Freya Bigg, 18, from Dundee, is the founder of UnitedKpop, a news and community website on Korean pop. She said Gangnam Style’s sense of humour, along with its singalongability despite the language difference, had made it resonate worldwide.
‘Most K-pop singers are beautiful and handsome people who do these complex dances, yet PSY is a 34-year-old, slightly large Korean man who doesn’t take himself seriously at all.
‘It has introduced people to the genre and broken down any presumptions they had about listening to songs in other languages. If you were to suggest that someone listen to another K-pop song now, they are more likely to be interested.
‘I don’t think it will ever become truly mainstream, but I do think K-pop can become something most people know about and accept. Some K-pop songs may reach the Top 40, but unlike American music, it won’t dominate it.’
Josh Webb, music writer at WhatCulture.com, said the big breakthrough for K-pop – if it comes – is more likely to stem from female artists.
‘If you purely look at the Korean Gaon chart, it’s the girls that are running the show this year,’ he said.
‘K-Pop veterans Girls’ Generation, T-ara, Sistar, f(x) and my personal favourites 2NE1 have all had number ones this year.
‘The girl bands will be the ones, if any, to break through as the look of the boy bands is too far removed from your One Directions and your Wanteds to appeal to the UK/USA pre-teen girl market. It’s a fairly androgynous look which is great for fashion, not so hot for commercial Western pop.’
Mr Webb admires how K-pop stars have more of a knack for connecting with their fans than acts from Britain and the US, even if the fans themselves sometimes cross the line – stalking is a big problem for South Korean pop groups.
There is another potential problem with PSY’s success – that a minority in the West might like his song because of their own racist views.
‘More worrying is that a lot of people latch on to Gangnam Style because of preconceived stereotypes of Asians: PSY is the funny Asian guy who’s doing the funny dance in the funny song,’ warned Amy He, editor-in-chief at New York-based website Seoulbeats.
She added: ‘K-pop as a genre is still in its early experimental stages, trying to find its footing and identity.
‘PSY being a current viral sensation doesn’t guarantee that it’ll translate into interest for the genre. He puts out great music and is a very popular artist, but he is not reflective of the mainstream K-pop scene at large, which is filled to the brim with boy and girl groups.’
She thinks his current popularity will do little for K-pop and that BIGBANG and 2NE1 – who share a label with PSY in YG Entertainment – have the most potential to cross over.
However, Ms He described Gangnam Style as ‘the perfect pop song’.
Mr Webb said the trick is not to take the song too seriously, even if it means doing the opposite with the man behind it.
He said: ‘People will write it off as a novelty song, and it kind of is, but when you realise PSY has been around for 12 years and released six albums worth of material there’s clearly something more there than pretending to straddle a horse in a Korean warehouse.’