The Sound of Korea: Social Media and the Spread of Gangnam Style

The Sound of Korea

If you care to remember as far back as 2012, somehow three years past, you might recall the end of the world. Or, at least, at the dawn of the 21st of December, that’s what some world history aficionados and astronomically enlightened citizens expected to check off their Mayan calendars.

On the same day, in the realm of events that actually took place, diehard Kpop fans, avid YouTubers, and a bewildered world caught up in a curious new music sensation watched as Psy’s music video “Gangnam Style” breached the 1 billion mark on the YouTube view counter. It was the song heard round the world.

To some, these two events were one in the same. To the majority, the former was an apocalyptic quirk hopefully left to the past, and the latter was the unexpected emblem of a multicultural future.

How could one song mean so much to the world and its future? What was it about Psy and his “Gangnam Style” that allowed them to surpass the popularity of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” in less than a tenth of the time?

First and foremost, let it be known that Psy did not become famous as a result of his record breaking song; despite the vast disparities between him and his contemporary Kpop idol counterparts–including, but not limited to, age, physique, and possession of “chocolate abs”–Psy had been a monolith in the South Korean music scene for decades, before most of his “competition” was even born. Why, then, did this one song breakthrough where others did not?

Though the song is not without merit–indeed, if you revisit the music video today, you will see that the number of views since doomsday has more than doubled, attesting to the song’s durability–it was social media and its collective decision to launch a race towards that magic nine-zeroed-number that allowed Gangnam Style to skyrocket into the global spotlight. And, having seen the video to victory, social media continued to laud the song and its creator and, by extension, the remainder of Kpop, Kdramas, and Korean society that had heretofore been overlooked.

Social media networks have been the greatest and most widespread forums for collective emotional bingeing since their advent. By 2012, the hot topic was Justin Bieber; fulminations and venerations were hurled from all sides to profess or disavow the personal and vocal valor of an idol none had met. So, when Gangnam Style, with its absurd music video and caricature-like artist presented itself, the anti-Bieber-fever-ists jumped on the band wagon. Battle crys of #Babyto1Billion and #BeatBieber echoed off the Walls.  By the time Psy’s video count really began to garner numbers, YouTube regulars, innocent bystanders, and perhaps even the curious Belieber all flocked to the cite, just to see what number it was at. And though “Baby” lost the race (it eventually did hit its mark late 2014), the sheer volume of social media crowdsourcing that took place in its support was a formidable sight.

Social media, by providing not only the arena for a global music showdown, but also an innumerable, Internet-impassioned audience united in intrigue and intensity, directly contributed to the success of Gangnam Style. And Psy, having gotten his wing tip shoes in the door, allowed a flood of highly infectious Kpop and Kdrama to reach an international audience on a whole new scale. The Internet, in acting as a simple mechanism for sharing music, has become the most powerful tool for spreading cultural awareness, social propaganda, and the human experience, on the planet.

Indeed, the main expectation in 2012 was the apocalypse. However, as the Wiki page on the “2012 Phenomenon” reminds us: “a New Age interpretation held that the date marked the start of a period during which Earth and its inhabitants would undergo a positive physical or spiritual transformation, and that 21 December 2012 would mark the beginning of a new era.”

And that, it certainly did.

Further Reading:

http://mcs.sagepub.com/content/28/1/25.short

http://www.uky.edu/Centers/Asia/SECAAS/Seras/2009/06_Jung_2009.pdf

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