"It was an opportunity to put South Korea on the map for people around the world."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
It was the scream at a yoga butt seen ‘round the world. “Gangnam Style” had it all: dirty dancing in an elevator; a love-at-first-sight scene in slow-motion; men in yellow tracksuits holding dance-offs in a garage; elderly people on a party bus; children cosplaying as adults. This was the gif-worthy moment when Korean hitmaker Psy rode in with his Trojan horse dance, grafting K-pop onto America’s collective consciousness.
But don’t call the then-34-year-old an overnight success. With a stage name short for “Psycho,” Psy made his name in the early aughts -- and his boundary-pushing debut had lyrics so NSFW, he was fined for it. It was only a matter of time before his flair for showmanship caught on everywhere else.
This pop equivalent of an adrenaline shot was the prequel to K-pop’s rise in the States, currently led by the biggest boy band in the world: BTS. While Wonder Girls and BoA made the first gains out West, “Gangnam Style” -- read as a satire of the affluent Seoul district, though the artist told Newsweek that it "wasn't a criticism of Gangnam” -- achieved virtual omnipresence. The game irrevocably changed when it came to international crossovers. Suddenly, Korean-language music was not only on the general public’s radar, it launched a full-blown takeover.
The history of “Gangnam Style” is paved in firsts that no other artist can ever replicate. In a meme economy of instant forgettability, truncated attention spans bent to his will. For a while, this maximalist anthem had staying power -- eclipsing Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” it became the first-ever music video to reach the billion-view mark. Before it became a figure of speech, Psy broke the internet. Literally: The world’s biggest streaming service was not prepared for Psy-levels of viewership. When the music video hit 2.1 billion views in 2014, YouTube’s view counter had to undergo a redesign.
It’s easy to take the currency of online fame for granted in the TikTok era. While the Lil Nas Xs of the world are breaking chart records in 2019, the funnyman was one of the first stars to parlay virality into the upper reaches of the Hot 100. His climb to the No. 2 spot foreshadowed a chart system that would be ruled by streaming in the coming years. “YouTube has not only become a big deal for K-pop but also for pop culture worldwide,” Psy comments to Billboard.
HyunA -- the visual’s leading lady and a Korean superstar in her own right -- notes how the global ripple effect was felt back home. “It was an opportunity to put South Korea on the map for people around the world,” says the singer-songwriter, who signed to Psy’s P Nation label this year. “While it clearly had a huge influence on gauging worldwide interest in K-pop, it also attracted just as much interest in the Gangnam district.”
While Psy was many Westerners’ first exposure to K-pop, he’s not exactly emblematic of the idol industry currently investing in stateside crossovers. Amid the increasing self-seriousness of the idolsphere, this showman sauntered in like a chaos agent. The typical idol is limited to the boundaries of a squeaky-clean role model. But Psy’s oddball sensibility made him stand out, as he took the camp theatrics of K-pop to their illogical endpoint.
“The song is immensely symbolic, and its legacy lives on in the form of a figurative trophy the world has gifted me, displayed right here in my living room,” Psy says with a laugh. “I glance at it every so often, and it fills me with pride.”