Breakthrough Breakdown: #1 Gangnam Style by Psy - Nov 22, 2012
“What is most Korean is what is the most international”
When you already know that Psy’s global superhit Gangnam Style has ranked #1 on iTunes in 30 countries around the world and clocked up an unprecedented 750 million YouTube views and counting, it’s pretty easy to then analyse the song and say, “Yep, the ingredients were all there for a major international hit” – but they were.
As we’ll try to show, the song manages the incredible feat of targeting its native South Korean market whilst still maintaining a worldwide appeal. As such it’s hard to believe that Psy wasn’t thinking beyond Asia when he created it, a suspicion to which he has the perfect retort: "The basic principle I have is that what is most Korean is what is the most international.”
So what can up-and-coming artists learn from the success of Gangnam Style which they can then apply to their own music?
(1) Social media thrives on sharing and so feeds on music videos that are fresh, funny and memorable
Park Jae-Sang, or Psy, may be a new face to most in the West, but the Gangnam Style breakout is not a story of an unknown posting a homemade video on YouTube and it catching fire. Psy is a major star in South Korea, signed to mega label YG Entertainment, and part of the Korean pop (K-pop) industry that is big business in the Far East and has a growing audience in the West.
So when the Gangnam Style video was posted online in July this year, it wasn’t a case of the video slowly building up ‘likes’ and enthusiastic comments as a handful of viewers recognised its brilliance and began passing it on – it already had a sizable audience ready waiting to share it en masse. Tweets and comments by stars like T-Pain and Robbie Williams, and a pivotal appearance on social news site Reddit, helped it spread like wildfire, moving beyond Asia into Europe, South American and finally the USA.
Psy has been able to exploit the recent headway made by earlier Korean exports – such as Wonder Girls in the US, TVXQ in China, BoA in Japan – in putting K-pop on the international radar. Thus when Gangnam Style first appeared online, the world music community would have been that much more curious and welcoming about the latest music coming out of South Korea.
(2) Know your target market inside and out
Psy may have been previously unknown in the USA but the country and its pop market was not unknown to him; the rapper spent time in the States and even attended Berklee College of Music, the world’s largest independent college of contemporary music.
His time in the USA is said to have introduced him to social commentary in music – a less familiar and welcome concept in South Korea – and given him a fresh perspective on his native country, which possible led to his satire on South Korean society.
(3) Be distinctive and different – but still accessible
Although Western music circles had been anticipating a K-pop breakthrough for some time, Psy was an unlikely trailblazer. While K-pop is dominated by the sugary sex appeal, sculpted features and slickly choreographed dance routines of boy and girl bands like Girls Generation and Super Junior, Psy cuts a rather more unusual figure as a tubby thirty-something with sharp suits and cheesy dance moves.
But it is because Psy is atypical to the K-pop model that he has made such a huge impact both at home and internationally. Whereas Korean acts are characterised by a slick, stylised and manufactured feel, Psy stands out for being distinctive and quirky.
More importantly though, for those Korean pop fans bombarded with images of idealised boys and girls, Psy is a refreshingly down-to-earth and accessible figure who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
(4) The language of the hook is more important than the rest of the lyrics
The language barrier is seen as one of the chief reasons why Korean acts have up until now failed to to break into the US market. However, given that Psy achieved such a massive hit with a Korean language song, surely that suggests the importance of language familiarity is overstated?
One argument is that when a song is sung in an unfamiliar language its meaning is more open to listener interpretation and that makes it more interesting and enigmatic.
But what Gangnam Style shows is that the language is important, just not in the obvious sense. As Psy and team were no doubt aware, you can get away with verses that are unintelligible just as long as the main hookline is memorable and repeatable (“Oppan Gangnam style! Heeey sexy lady …”). See Falco’s German language US and UK #1 ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ for a classic example of this. Of course the same principle applies to English language songs too – most listeners are oblivious to a song’s lyrics beyond the hook.
Psy still couldn’t get away with singing in Korean on US releases, mind. If he wants to build a fanbase beyond a novelty one-off hit then audiences must connect with him, and not just the song, and they’ll quickly lose interest if they can’t understand what he’s singing about. It’s not surprising then that Psy has recently announced plans for an upcoming English language single and album.
(5) English language skills really are important both on and off the mic
In order to build a career in the US and connect with American audiences, Psy will need to compromise his Korean identity by becoming “more American”. Thus English language skills away from the mic are also vital.
Fortunately, due to the time he spent in the States, Psy already speaks very good English. And what’s more, in not only speaking it well, but also being funny, personable and charismatic with it, Psy has started to cultivate an engaging profile through the umpteen TV appearances he’s made in the US promoting Gangnam Style. In doing so he has helped to fan the flames of its stateside success.
(6) A manager and label that understands the local market is vital
To establish himself in the US and not get washed away once the Gangnam wave crashes, Psy will need great local backing. Having signed to Scooter Braun’s management and record label – home to both Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepson – in September, his prospects are promising. "We've come to an agreement to make history together," Braun said at the time. "To be the first Korean artist to break a big record in the United States." Braun will not allow Psy to become another Rebecca Black – or another BoA.
It is the strong local support in the form of Braun’s management and his Universal partnered label Schoolboy Records gives Psy a huge advantage over K-pop predecessor, BoA. In 2009 the “Queen of Korean Pop” released an English language album in a concerted effort to break the US market. However, even top local writer-producers like Bloody & Avant, Sean Garrett and Brian Kennedy couldn’t save it from dismal failure. The label behind the campaign, SM Entertainment, may be a dominant force in South Korea but they were out of their depth in the US.
Braun and Universal Republic have already had a large impact in consolidating Psy’s success in the US through his appearances, whether on TV performing with Madonna on stage at Madison Square Garden. It’s such promo inroads that have helped turn YouTube views into downloads – which is what really counts. While the view count has steadily mushroomed (graph #2) once Psy hit US shores, signed with Braun, and then hit the promotional merry-go-round.
(7) Write local but with themes that are international
The lyrics may be incomprehensible to non-Korean speakers but anyone that has seen the video and absorbed the media furore will have quickly figured out what it was all about. This was important because the relevance of the subject to the West was a significant factor in the song’s appeal.
In satirising the vulgar consumerism of the wealthy and fashionable youth in the Seoul district of Gangnam, the lyrics may have a superficial focus and appeal that is distinctly regional, but the themes could easily apply to any rich enclave in almost any city. Plus the anti-capitalist tone has a universal relevance in the current economic climate.
Many of the best international hits are those with regional subjects but universal themes. The local details give a song a character and local flavour that appeals to its immediate audience, while the broader themes provide a much wider resonance. No-one complained that they weren’t able to appreciate The Beatles’ Penny Lane because they hadn’t been to Liverpool. It was actually the fact that it was an “exotic” place that gave it a novelty appeal.
The mistake is to try to create a song that sets out to appeal to everyone because to do so would mean smothering any distinctiveness and character.
(8) A video that feels familiar but has a unique slant can give it a immediate impact
The video strikes a similar balance: at first glance it’s Korean – Korean performers, Korean setting – but as you watch and absorb it, it feels recognisable.
Psy claims to have made the video specifically for native Koreans, but by choosing to lampoon globally recognised American pop videos – specifically the materialistic hip-hop videos – it is hard to believe that he didn’t also have a potential non-Korean audience in the back of his mind. The subject choice means that rather than a foreign joke you don’t understand because you don’t understand the cultural context, this feels immediately familiar and funny to anyone around the world that has seen MTV.
That it seems familiar and yet fresh and different at the same time is what makes it work so perfectly.
(9) Crowd source to find out what your audience want
With a video rather than radio-oriented release, memorable visuals are essential to ensnare the audience’s attention – much like a musical hook. The video scenario is compelling and distinctive on its own, but Psy and team were acutely aware that a brilliantly judged accompanying dance could really catapult the song into popular consciousness.
Rather than solely rely on the creative brainstorming of his own team, Psy employed the social media strategy of crowdsourcing and invited suggestions from the Korean dance community to develop what he describes as a “simple and single move”.
The “invisible horse” is not a dance you sit back and admire, but one that makes you want to get up and try it for yourself. Its genius is that it is easy to do but difficult to master, and so you don’t lose interest so quickly.
(10) Inclusivity not exclusivity is key to building an audience
The whole attitude of Gangnam Style is of inclusivity. It’s been described as “a piece of shared cultural currency”. Instead of putting an audience in its place by blowing them away with sheer awe-inspiring musicality, it encourages people to get involved and enjoy “Gangnam Style”: sing the hook, imitate the dance – even make your own version.
(11) Boost virality by encouraging people to get involved
A mark of a song’s breakthrough into popular culture is when the parodies start rolling in. Gangnam Style follows – and trumps – recent viral video hits like Carly Rae Jepson’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and Gotye’s ‘Somebody I Used To Know’.
Conscious of a parody’s power in boosting distribution, awareness, and ultimately the success of the original, Psy has not only created a video that screams out to be mimicked but also waived copyright to encourage people to make their own versions. Even the name was chosen so that it could easily co-opted by the parodists (see Gandalf Style, Eton Style etc.). Plus it’s appropriate that Gangnam Style is so open to being copied when it is itself an eccentric blend of pop culture inspirations.
At near to eight hundred million views, the original Gangnam Style video has been watched by an astonishing number of people, but then if you factor in all the parody videos too then the song’s audience reach becomes mind-boggling.
It makes you wonder about the major artists and labels that have reacted grumpily to spoof versions of their work appearing on YouTube and had them yanked off the web on the grounds of intellectual property violation. So is this a sign that record companies have got it all upside down with regards to protecting their assets and are missing an ingenious marketing tactic?
(12) Study recent chart hits to understand what makes them tick
It would be nice to conclude that ultimately it’s the quality of the song itself that counts above everything, but in this case that’s not true at all.
In truth, beyond the inspired novelty of the lyrics and undeniable catchiness, the song is not much more than an obvious retread of LMFAO’s recent hit, ‘Sexy and I Know It’ (a similarity highlighted by the near seamless mash-up of the two songs). The song plays a support role to the video and its dance and would be nothing without them.
The reason the LMFAO hit was plundered for inspiration could have been because the song was unknown in South Korea – it wasn’t released on grounds of censorship. But then the familiarity of the song in the West clearly had no detrimental effect on its success there – in fact it may have even helped it. So what’s the lesson here then, rip off recent hit songs as long as you make sure to give them a unique twist?! No, but it is important to at least try to understand what it is that makes recent hits tick.
Read On ...
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