In early May, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong posted a photo to his Instagram account of “Gangnam Style” sensation Psy. “This dude is the herpes of music,” the caption read, alongside the hash tags #flareup and #pleasegoaway. “Once you think it’s gone, it comes back.”
That post came nearly a month after the release of “Gentleman,” the 35-year-old Korean pop phenomenon’s follow-up to his first smash hit, a song whose video, with 1.8 billion total views, is — by almost a factor of two — the most watched visual in the history of YouTube.
For much of the past year “Gangnam Style” was inescapable on TV, at weddings, at sporting events, everywhere. That song vaulted Psy — a doughy, good humored outlier in his native country’s carefully moussed, vaguely militaristic music industry — to pop cultural heights no one in Seoul could have ever anticipated. After a decade spent touring almost exclusively for Korean audiences, he was teaching Britney Spears the “horse dance” on “Ellen,” counting down the New Year for us in Times Square, shilling pistachios during the Super Bowl, and, perhaps most impressively, performing for the Obamas at the annual “Christmas in Washington” special. He’d gained entrée to the largest music market in the world. He was a part of pop’s most inner circle. And all of it stemmed from the sometimes maddening appeal of one very viral music video. How could he possibly follow that?
As of this past week, “Gentleman” is the year’s most-viewed video on YouTube with 573 million hits and counting. But have you actually heard “Gentleman” recently? An unabashedly strategic copy of its predecessor, the song is armed with a similarly propulsive, high-wattage electro hook and an equally relentless barrage of outlandish visual punchlines. “Gentleman” has, if the numbers are to be trusted, been an overwhelming success — proof, the narrative would suggest, that Psy wasn’t just a one-hit wonder and that “Gangnam Style” wasn’t just the 2012 equivalent of the “Macarena.” But like the Latin pop surge of the mid-1990s, Psy’s unexpected breakthrough came at a pivotal moment for Korean pop, or K-pop as it’s also called.
Since the late 1990s, Korea has been producing some of the most exhilarating pop music in the world. It is an artform — closer to a science — that in recent years has made cultural inroads outside of Asia. As early as their teens, prospective performers are recruited and sent through a specially designed, deeply competitive training program meant to prepare them for careers as global pop exports. They live together in housing arrangements made by their record label, learn foreign languages, song composition, rapping and dance choreography before finally debuting.
This debut is usually a heavily considered concept, be it a 12-member, half-Chinese, half-South Korean boy band that can split up to tour separately but simultaneously; or a sprawling, nine-member girl group with members come from as far away as Southern California. (Both of those examples, EXO and Girls’ Generation, call Seoul’s first powerhouse agency, SM Entertainment, home.) The songs, like the groups themselves, are constructed for maximum reach: Choruses are built from catchphrase English, verses are in Korean or custom-tailored to target markets. Sounds, textures and visuals are often sourced from various Western hits. The result is a listening (and viewing) experience that is both bewildering and thrilling, one wherein recognizable pop moments from the past (or present) are copied, tweaked, and improved upon before being fused together, side-by-side, in the space of the same, aggressively polished product.
Which is why Psy is such an extraordinary case. He is not a conventionally pretty face and “Gangnam Style” is comprised of very specific cultural signifiers, written in largely untranslatable Korean. It not only transcended the language barrier but also upended thousands of hours and millions of dollars worth of market research in South Korea, where the word “invasion” had become used more and more frequently to describe and package the impending arrival of highly trained, highly disciplined pop brands who were already uniformly famous across the Asian continent.
The march continues, and much of the force behind K-pop’s aggressive outward expansion is that Korea’s own market is, at this point, too small to contain it. Though established Korean pop acts visited the United States as early as the 1980s, when the “godfather of Korean pop,” Cho Yong Pil, performed at Carnegie Hall, there has been a dissonance between attendance numbers and mainstream awareness. “The K-pop fan community keeps up to speed with the touring or promotion visits, so even before these groups become familiar to a wider audience, there have been in-market trips,” says Yvonne Yuen, senior vice president of international marketing at Universal Music Southeast Asia. “Some acts may not have Billboard hits but still manage to sell out Madison Square Garden or the Staples Center.”
More recently, high profile Korean pop groups have continued to test the waters in the United States before, during and after Psy’s rise. In 2005, the renowned solo artist Rain performed at the Garden. Girls’ Generation returned to New York early last year for appearances on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and “Live! with Kelly Ripa” months before Bigbang and 2NE1 — outwardly edgy, fashion-forward labelmates of Psy’s — embarked on brief sold-out tours of the United States. There also have been collaborations with popular American artists, but none have moved the needle in any visibly significant way outside of the distinctly fervent (and always online) K-pop fan network.
Still, Psy’s success has generated an interest that, more and more, expands beyond the Korean-American community. According to data provided by Google, the online viewership among K-pop artists in this country doubled in the year after “Gangnam Style” was unveiled in July 2012. And audiences are increasingly diverse, a development that has made touring more attractive for an increasing number of young groups.
“What’s interesting is that the pace with which K-pop acts are coming to the U.S. has grown faster,” says Bernie Cho, head of the DFSB Kollective, a creative agency in Seoul that specializes in distributing and marketing Korean music worldwide. “Back in the day, it used to take years for them to establish themselves as superstars in Korea and in the region. Going global was an afterthought. But now, because of social media and iTunes, instead of waiting for years, it takes these same acts a matter of weeks and months for them to realize the potential elsewhere. The awareness has accelerated.”
On Nov. 13, Infinite, a spritely, seven-member boy band, will perform at the Fillmore in Silver Spring as part of its “One Great Step” tour. This four-date jaunt also includes dates in Los Angeles, New York and San Jose. It’s an interesting development. While fellow upstarts VIXX and B.A.P. also have planned visits to the United States this year, all three groups have experimented with booking shows outside of the usual markets of the Bay Area, Big Apple and L.A.; the latter came to D.C.’s Warner Theater in May and VIXX plans to visit Dallas later this month. This is not an accident.
“Before they arrive, most young K-pop acts have already done their marketing research,” Cho says. “Whether they’re looking at their Facebook fan pages or their YouTube views, they have a better sense of who their fans are and, more importantly, where they are. When they arrive and they do tour in the U.S., it’s very calculated.”
Though Infinite debuted to tepid response in 2010, with an album titled (ahem) “First Invasion,” they would not perform in front of an audience at home in Korea until early 2012, when they walked out on stage in front of 8,000 screaming fans. In the two years between the album’s release and the live debut, the group work-shopped its repertoire extensively. It developed the “scorpion dance,” a move that spawned a rash of video tutorials and contests. This current tour will visit four continents and their fans, dubbed Inspirits, promise to be there in numbers.
“These virtual tribes connect and ultimately, want to connect with each other in real life,” says Ted Kim, of MNET, a Korean music television channel that now produces English language programming in this country. “Live events and concerts provide a great opportunity for like-minded people to come together and celebrate their mutual interest and passion.”
Cho believes there’s only more to come. “I think we’re going to be seeing more and more new, young Korean acts coming to the United States,” he adds. “Not only to tour, but also to record.”
“Psy has definitely opened the door to a new market, including America, for us and other K-pop artists,” Infinite said via e-mail. “We do appreciate him so much and hope this world tour will contribute to K-pop in some ways as Psy has done. Above all, we are enjoying every single moment of the tour which has given us many chances meeting lots of Inspirits and K-pop lovers out there. It makes us feel proud of ourselves. We are ready to give audience unforgettable moments.”
Bevan is an editor at SPIN.