Visual music: How ‘Gangnam Style’ exploited K-pop’s secret strength and overcame its biggest weakness

October 18, 2012

South Korean rapper Psy speaks at a Seoul press conference. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

Americans aren't particularly accustomed to foreign music competing with their own in global markets, so when the South Korean song "Gangnam Style" popped onto U.S. music charts, it was something of a wake-up call. Korean pop music has been thriving in East Asia for years, which is remarkable in itself given the country's small size and the wealth of successful musicians in its bigger and richer neighbor Japan.

So how do Korea's music companies do it? Part of the industry's success comes from being just that: industrial. Musicians are meticulously groomed, songs set to careful formulas, and all of it processed on a grand scale. The New Yorker's John Seabrook explained the concept of "cultural technology," a factory-like system whereby everything from composer nationality to eye shadow color to hand gestures is pre-determined by formula and protocol. Seabrook suggests that the "cultural technology" model produces music "too robotic to make it in the West" -- the music's painstaking earnestness also doesn't quite translate for Americans -- and K-pop has indeed long struggled to make it big in Western markets.

How, then, to explain the sudden U.S. success of "Gangnam Style," written and performed by a K-popper who is of the "cultural technology" system but also an aberration within it: older, less attractive (sorry) and more satirical than his K-compatriots? How did Psy manage to utilize the successes of "cultural technology" -- he's got Americans mimicking his dance and glued to his video, in true K-pop form -- while also overcoming the more "robotic" aspects of it that have hampered its Western reach?

The answer may have to do with the timing of South Korea's "economic miracle," in which the largely agrarian dictatorship became a wealthy and developed democracy in a few short decades. The country became rich enough to support a big domestic music industry during a time when the way people consume music was changing.

As NPR's Zoe Chace points out in a fascinating Planet Money episode, this meant that Korean popular music came of age during the era of MTV and, later, YouTube. Whereas the American music industry had developed during the radio and phonograph era, gearing its processes and practices to put those technologies first (which is still true), Korea's grew up privileging video. 

"From the beginning, new songs debuted on national television, not on the radio, like was done traditionally over here. That means the moment Koreans started listening to Korean pop music, they were listening through their screens. They were watching their music," Chace posits on the Planet Money blog. This is consistent with Seabrooks' account: he says that "Korean music historians" broadly cite a 1992 performance by a group called Seo Taiji and Boys -- on a nationally televised show.

This heritage, Chace says, led Korean music companies to emphasize TV, rather than radio and CDs as American companies do. Artists were groomed for TV, songs chosen to produce a good video. When the YouTube era began, Korean pop was uniquely poised for a global takeover. "Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world," Chace explains." So early on in their development, record labels had to get good at YouTube. And they kind of perfected it. YouTube videos by Korean record labels were so good, they got tons of views overseas."

The theory that K-pop is uniquely and particularly video-oriented might help explain how "Gangnam Style" overcame the industry's weaknesses. The song, after all, first caught on in the United States not because of the song itself, but because of the video, which Americans found baffling and hilariously entertaining. The things that made the song such a K-pop outlier — the satirical silliness and near-subversive self-mockery — are the opposite of the genre's typical earnestness and practiced wholesomeness and it gave Americans a reason to forward what they might have otherwise treated as just another bizarre foreign pop song, as well as permission to enjoy the catchy hook. It was only after the music video went massively viral on YouTube, precisely because it was initially treated as a viral video rather than a pop hit, that the song started to succeed in the traditional American style, climbing charts, playing on the radio, and getting downloaded on iTunes. 

Psy's song had something to say, and his character in the viral video comes across as complicated and imperfect in a way that K-pop starts are specifically engineered not to be. These traits might not be easy for South Korean music executives to engineer into their "cultural technology" industrial complex. But you can bet they'll try.

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Max Fisher · October 18, 2012