May 2, 2014
High Stakes 3: Music and Economy
On July 15, 2012, a video was uploaded to YouTube. In less than six months, this video would be both the first YouTube video to ever hit one billion views and the most viewed YouTube video of all time. This video was the music video for the song Gangnam Style by the Korean pop artist Psy, and this is its story.
Why did Gangnam Style shoot to the top of the collective world consciousness, out of all of Psy’s songs? Why, even, did Psy himself garner so much popularity in such a short span of time? Fans who had been immersed in the world of K-pop before the Gangnam Style craze were bewildered. There were many other groups that they would have expected to get wildly popular before Psy did. By all accounts, the idea of the boy and girl groups of five to twelve talented, young, and attractive people who could dance, sing, and act—like SHINee, Super Junior, and Girl’s Generation—should have appealed much more to the pop culture of many foreign countries, and especially in the United States. They are much more like what the United States was used to in terms of popular music, and just different enough in language and general style that they should have drawn audiences in. One Direction, a hugely popular boy band from the United Kingdom, was gaining in popularity at this point in time. Here’s an example of what they were doing around July 2012:
And here’s an example of what SHINee was doing a little earlier:
But instead, the first video to ever garner a billion hits on YouTube was the wacky, nonsensical work of art that is the music video for Gangnam Style.  Here it is, for your comparison:
The origins of Gangnam Style start, of course, with the origins of the artist himself. Park Jae-Sang was born on December 31, 1977, in the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea.  He grew up in South Korea, and planned to matriculate to Boston University to study business; however, once he got there he discovered his love for music and transferred to Berklee College of Music to study it more adequately. This also did not work out, and Park dropped out of Berklee in order to pursue a solo singing career back in South Korea.
Psy released his first album, PSY from the PSYcho World!, on January 12, 2001. At this time, he was seen by the music scene as a rookie hip-hop singer with considerable talent. This debut album was catchy and clever, with lyrics that were a little too outspoken for the main civil groups in South Korea—they heavily opposed Psy’s work, causing him to have to pay fines and to restrict access to his album. Psy’s second and third albums, Sa 2 and 3 Psy, have similar stories. They are both just as strong and memorable as Psy’s debut album, and they both had points that drew the attention of authority figures in South Korea. Psy started being noticed for his controversial nature, and civil groups again questioned the effect it would have on young people in South Korea. His album Sa 2 was banned from being sold to people under 19 years of age.
Here is the entirety of PSY from the PSYcho World! It is a great example of his early work and the style he used to have—much, much different from what has propelled him to international fame today. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHEZscB3z-o
In 2010, Psy joined YG Entertainment, one of the “big three” music labels in South Korea. These companies are mostly responsible for the international fame and distribution of K-pop music as it stands today. They are all incredibly successful companies, and this can arguably be seen best in their financial success: in the first half of 2012, YG Entertainment gained the equivalent of $36,325,392.99, and in the first half of 2013, YG Entertainment gained the equivalent of $54,036,032.31. From these earnings, we can see both the enormity of the monetary success that companies like YG Entertainment earn because of the artists they take under their wing and the increase in earnings in the span of one year. Many artists choose to join these corporations because of their incredible track records with other artists and because of the tight hold they have on the entire entertainment business in South Korea as a whole. Psy’s decision to join YG Entertainment was partly based on this and partly based on his own lack of funding.3
As part of his incorporation into YG Entertainment, Psy was offered many more performance opportunities—often in front of tens of thousands of people. In January 2012, Psy performed in front of 80,000 people for his debut in Japan as part of the YG Family Concert, which was of course through YG Entertainment. During this concert, Psy started to present himself as the precursor to the image he presented in Gangnam Style. At his entrance, Psy held up a sign in Japanese saying “I’m a famous singer well-known for driving the audience wild in Korea, but here, today, I’m just a little chubby newcomer.” With this, Psy turned himself into a comedic figure instead of someone who the audience was expected to take seriously. This move helped him more than anyone in the general public could have imagined, and this became more apparent as his career progressed.
This all came to a head in July of 2012, which is when the video for Gangnam Style hit YouTube. Again, here’s the video for Gangnam Style: http://youtu.be/9bZkp7q19f0
The song Gangnam Style is a typical dance song, when it comes down to the basics. Again, it’s very catchy: it was in line with the burgeoning electronic music trend in 2012, and it wasn’t unpleasant to listen to. In this video, Psy is the epitome of a comedic character. He wears sunglasses throughout the entire thing, and when combined with the six or so truly ridiculous outfits he sports, Psy looks like someone you can’t help but laugh at a little bit. His dance moves aren’t trying to be sexy or suave at all—in fact, they’re the exact opposite. The most famous dance move that was taken from this video and spread all over the world was Psy’s horse-riding paradiddle shtick. Another move he repeats often is this funny four-step jig that makes his legs look like rubber rods waving sideways: again, not sexy, but hilarious. The situations that Psy is in throughout the video only heighten the comedy. One of the most memorable is the scene in which an elevator door opens on Psy singing to the camera under the legs of a man dressed as a clueless tourist, who is hip-thrusting in time to the song. Another is when Psy is inexplicably shirtless in a sauna, cuddling another shirtless man while a third starts to dance in front of them. Something is constantly going wrong for Psy even when the shot is supposed to make him look somewhat sophisticated. When he has two beautiful women on his arm, suddenly fake snow starts falling from the sky and coats them from head to toe. By the end of the video, any shred of attraction the viewer might have towards the character Psy plays is completely gone. Again, this is the complete opposite tactic from what other groups at the time were doing—and that is why it worked.
The reason why Psy and Gangnam Style took off so quickly and with such great scale is because the phenomenon was precisely what the world of popular culture was missing at the time. People didn’t need another picture-perfect group of talented kids who were churning out basically the same thing over and over, no matter where they were from. YG Entertainment took a completely different approach with Psy’s image: they made him the guy people could laugh at, especially when times were as rough as they were the world over in 2012. Gangnam Style was the perfect piece of comedy and music rolled into one. It could be marketed on so many levels, and YG Entertainment took full advantage of it. The song earned Psy $8.1 million in 2012 alone. Imagine how much revenue Psy must have gotten from the song by this point in the middle of 2014. In addition, if this is the amount of money that the artist is earning from this song, the monetary gain for YG Entertainment—the company that is basically in control of Psy—must be colossal.
YG Entertainment and Psy sold the world a character who stood out for his hilarity at a time when everyone else was trying for sex appeal. He accomplished their goal, spreading as an image throughout the entire world and inspiring countless parodies and remakes of his work. The tactics used to sell this character were unnoticeable at the time, but looking back at the Gangnam Style craze after a year and a half, the methods are clear. Gangnam Style will stand as a cultural marker in the history of pop culture of the entire world, and when its achievements are viewed in Gangnam Style’s environmental context, it is clear that it deserves to be there.
Yang, Jeff. “Gangnam Style’s U.S. Popularity Has Koreans Puzzled, Gratified – Speakeasy – WSJ.” The Wall Street Journal. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/08/28/gangnam-style-viral-popularity-in-u-s-has-koreans-puzzled-gratified/ (accessed May 1, 2014).
Rahman, Ray. “PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ becomes first YouTube video to earn a billion views | EW.com.” EW.com. http://music-mix.ew.com/2012/12/21/psy-gangnam-style-billion-views-youtube/ (accessed April 29, 2014).
Williams, Ian. “PSY goes home, gets ‘Gangnam-Style’ welcome.” Today.com. http://www.today.com/video/today/49192707#49192707 (accessed April 30, 2014).
Rocheleau, Matt. “BU hopes to get donation from former student Psy, the South Korean rapper known for ‘Gangnam Style’ hit.” Boston.com. http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/allston_brighton/2012/10/bu_hopes_to_get_donation_from.html?camp (accessed May 2, 2014).
“Psy from the Psycho World!” iTunes. Accessed April 29, 2014.
 “Earnings of SM, YG, and JYP for the first half of 2013 revealed | allkpop.com.” AllKpop. http://www.allkpop.com/article/2013/08/earnings-of-sm-yg-and-jyp-for-the-first-half-of-2013-revealed (accessed April 29, 2014).
 Kim, JiYeon. “Psy Wows Japanese Music Fans.” Psy Wows Japanese Music Fans. http://mwave.interest.me/enewsworld/en/article/2669/psy-wows-japanese-music-fans (accessed April 28, 2014).
 “PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ Has Already Earned the Singer $8.1 Million and Counting.” The Hollywood Reporter. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/psys-gangnam-style-has-earned-398543 (accessed May 2, 2014).