BBC Radio 4 asks in a 3-minute segment of "Profile": why is "Gangnam Style" such a hit?
The short answer, provided in part by Dr. Hae-kyung Um of Liverpool University, is that the video and its creator South Korean rapper Psy are both perfect for the online era. They both have cross-over appeal to various groups and do not resist parody; in fact, they seem to invite it. Several parody videos of "Gangnam Style" appear on YouTube daily. This trend in turn heightens awareness of the original. "Gangnam Style" is a participatory artistic and pop culture phenomenon for an age of transparency, collaboration, and global connectivity through technology.
YouTube can be a delivery vehicle for global success but it doesn't guarantee it. Less remarked upon in the BBC segment is that by reflecting the Western, specifically American, influence that for years has strongly influenced South Korea (1 in 5 Koreans are Christian, one Korean Pentecostal mega-church famously has 1 million members), Psy and "Gangnam Style" are familiar enough to Western viewers to be non-threatening while still being distinctly South Korean enough to be safely and entertainingly exotic.
So, questions remain. Why is this Psy video a breakout when earlier ones are extremely similar? Do American viewers in particular perceive a tip of the cowboy hat from Psy in his rodeo-evoking moves? Is "Gangnam Style" more popular than his previous videos in non-Western countries, too? If yes, then would non-Western popularity be as strong if the video had not also caught on in the US? Who is influencing whom and how much? I presume it's not particularly popular in Sana'a and Mexico City...or is it?
I suspect that to younger Westerners the video raises curiosity about South Korea in general and perhaps K-pop music in particular, as the Summer Olympics in Seoul might have done if they had been in 2012, not 1988. The 2012 Summer Olympic games had unprecedented Internet presence--much to the benefit of Britain's brand and London tourism--including through social media engagement by spectators and athletes, whose average age was 26. Psy is a bit like a one-man South Korean Olympics, a second one for 2012: flashy, pop-oriented, and if not athletic or very young, at least slightly baby-faced and surprisingly agile and fun to watch. BBC Radio 4 even gives some understandably tempered play to optimistic speculation about Psy's ability to thaw North and South Korean tensions. What would be more Olympic than that? Global goodwill through dance. I would not, however, expect a performance at the DMZ anytime soon.
Photo: U.S. Army, Installation Management Command, Korea Region, Public Affairs Office (2008) via Wikipedia