September 18th, 2012
12:36 PM ET

The universal language of 'Gangnam Style'

If you haven't heard of "Gangnam Style" by now, it's likely you live under a rock (or at the very least, have no access to the Internet). Korean performer Psy has made quite a splash for himself with the quirky song and video, which is currently sitting pretty on YouTube with more than 194 million views (and counting) since its release on July 15.

It's now among the most liked videos of all time, and it just recently hit #1 on the U.S. iTunes charts. Everyone loves the singer's trademark "horse dance," celebrities included. The video has been recognized by Tom Cruise, American rapper T-Pain, Nelly Furtado, Katy Perry ... and the list goes on. 

Now Psy is a hot commodity. He's just been signed by Justin Bieber's manager, Scooter Braun, who promises that Psy will be the first Korean artist to break a big record in the United States.

I'm not surprised. Psy is only the latest entertainer to make a splash in the Korean Wave.

We talked about it back in May, months before anyone in the United States had a clue what "Gangnam Style" was. I've always cheered on this phenomenon (or "hallyu" as the Koreans call it), hoping to see more recognition of the music that I love here in the States. As a devoted fan of Korean pop, I'm cautiously interested in where this movement is going.

Naturally, people want to know the reason why something is a massive success. And so, journalists dug. The Atlantic had all sorts of things to say about the song's meaning. Korea Law Today mined deeper than most with a piece on the meaning behind the song's lyrics and cultural nuances. Init_Music even explained how Psy's success is an example of how Asians have to conform to certain roles in order to make an impact overseas.

As interesting as it was to understand what could really be going on in "Gangnam Style" from its roots, ultimately, it has little to do with its mainstream success. After all, the majority of the people dancing to "Gangnam Style" right now don't speak a word of Korean.

The true language of "Gangnam Style" isn't Korean. It may be the language of the song's lyrics, but its true means of communication is a universal one: meme culture.

From the first scenes of the video where Psy lounges in a beach chair while a little boy dances nearby to leading the charge on a minibus while elderly ladies imitate the horse dance by his side, the video oozes the silliness that make memes irresistible to Internet users. As Psy said in a recent appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show while teaching Britney Spears the now-famous horse dance, doing it Gangnam-style is about "dressing classy and acting cheesy."

Brad Kim, editor of Know Your Meme, believes that the "Gangnam Style" video uses a lot of visual imagery that echoes what we've seen go viral in the past.

"The most familiar theme is the eye-catching combination of speedy shuffle dance and eclectic costumes that has been proven to be a hit with LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," which also spawned hundreds of remix videos on its own," Kim said.

When it comes to the video's overwhelming success, Kim believes Psy's self-deprecating performance and willingness to look silly endeared him to a wide audience. Since the singer has long embraced his image  as the "entertainer slash singer," it was a key to helping him stand out among a sea of mechanically trained, perfectly groomed K-pop artists.

And would "Gangnam Style" have been an international hit without the video?

"Nope," Kim says. "With all respect to the artist, I don't think it would've been a YouTube grand slam without the music video or the dance. It's the dance and the humor that ultimately led to its overcoming of language barriers."

So "Gangnam Style's" American success is rooted in meme language. But do memes have as strong an influence over the rest of the Korean Wave?

Dana D'Amelio, writer for the Korean music culture blog Seoulbeats, says that the majority of K-pop lacks the easy-to-imitate dancing and broad appeal humor that "Gangnam" is known for, which is why the former had less success overseas.

"Psy comes across as a court jester of sorts.  He exudes humor and self-deprecation, which is a huge part of his appeal, "she said, explaining that the celeb could be pigeonholed into fulfilling this role for the rest of his career in the United States.

With K-pop and the Korean Wave, selling music is important, but this goal must be carried out with the goal of presenting South Korea to the world in mind.

D'Amelio says she doesn't see other Korean groups making the transition to a gimmicky approach easily, since the bands that are a part of the Korean Wave are intrinsically and inevitably tied to ideas about the Korean nation and Korea's ability to stand on the global stage. They also tend to rely on a slicker and more serious approach, and the typical K-pop video doesn't use humor at all.

"Psy's success is great, but it comes at a cost - while people certainly appreciate him, a lot of them are laughing at him and not with him," she says.

Perhaps the Korean star doesn't mind how the attention came about, as long as he has a chance to shine. After all, he even mentioned that he felt "pathetic" at times while filming the video and playing the role of the opulent "Gangnam Style" type.

"Human society is so hollow," Psy remarked. Maybe he knows more about his meteoric success then he lets on.

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Filed under: Otaku
soundoff (72 Responses)
  1. Hubert Larrimore

    LMFAO began their career in 2006 as part of the electro house club scene in Los Angeles, which at the time featured DJ/producers like Steve Aoki and Adam Goldstein. The duo started building a local buzz through their shows and radio play.[6] Once they had recorded some demos, Redfoo's best friend will.i.am introduced them to Interscope head Jimmy Iovine who gave the green light for them to be signed to Interscope/will.i.am Music.:,^'

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    June 2, 2013 at 12:06 am |
  2. Cecil Cardamone

    Horse riding looks fun and enjoyable but it is a skillful job. For a smooth ride, both horse and the rider need to strike the right balance. It is important for a rider to follow a horse’s motion and stay in balance, if not you will end up gripping the horse with your thighs, clinging on to him by holding their calves etc. if this creates some unbalance in the horse’s motions, his ability to turn would get affected...:.*

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    May 18, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  3. Cecil Iler

    Psy likened the Gangnam District to Beverly Hills, California, and said in an interview that he intended in a twisted sense of humour by claiming himself to be "Gangnam Style" when everything about the song, dance, looks, and the music video is far from being such a high class.,'

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    February 8, 2013 at 1:04 am |
  5. Ali Cademartori

    The horse dance is becoming famous in over the world and the singer named Psy is known as a worldwide idol. Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ video has more than 300 million YouTube views and counting.Millions of people imitated this dance. A teacher teaching math danced ‘Gangnam Style’ in his period to make it less boring and his students are very interesting in his new way of teaching. A teacher teaching physical education did the same thing in the physical class. In recent days, people told about this song and its dance had proved as an internet sensation when almost 1000 inmates of a Philippine prison burst into the famous horse-riding dance.,

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    February 5, 2013 at 3:45 am |
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    January 29, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  7. romsson

    The ultimate parody: ALL PARODIES AT ONCE =)

    December 19, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  8. dedektif

    Hi there, I found your site by means of Google at the same time as searching for a similar topic, your web site came up, it seems to be great. I've bookmarked to my favourites|added to bookmarks.

    December 11, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  9. Austin

    Hey I got a virus when I tried down loading this video. I downloaded this earlier and it saved me so much money. Check it out http://goo.gl/4Nu6o it is worth every cent it paid for itself the first time my comp crashed. I am so grateful I didn't lose all my files. I love gangnam style btw

    October 9, 2012 at 3:29 am |
  10. CherryBlossomAngel

    Gangnam represents 3 percent of the country population along with the upper 1% of the wealth. So what about the other 99% lol. Young rich guys dress up in ostentatious tuxes, blow thousands of dollars at night at clubs. While image-conscious women shop at some of the world’s most luxurious boutiques. It's a satire of sorts but put to great effect.

    October 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  11. CherryBlossomAngel

    Test post

    October 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  12. QuantomVortex

    Koreans have been a bit confused by Gangnam Style in how it is connecting with a worldwide audience. It was meant for Koreans and a Korean auidence yet it still took off. Anyone familiar in Korea with Lexy, Tasha & E.via know they are some of the most talented female rappers around. They rival many western female rappers yet don't get anywhere the exposure. You add Miryo (Beg) & CL (2NE1) into the mix and it is clear to see Korea has some extremly talented K-Hop artists. I haven't even gotten to the soloist either like newcomer Elle which will blow you away with her powerful vocals.You then add artists like Boa, Se7en, Younha, G NA, Lena Park, Gummy and IU just to name a few. This shows you pretty clearly that PSY is just the tip of the iceberg. K-Artists have a lot to offer and what they need to to is just bring this own Korean style which K-Pop has plently of to go around.

    October 5, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  13. QuantomVortex

    .

    October 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  14. Thatpers0n2

    WRONG! PSY DIDN'T COPY ANY ONE, "GANGANAM" IS A RICH TOWN IN KOREA'S MAIN CITY SEOUL. PSY POKES FAN AT THE SPOILED RICH PEOPLE WHO LIVE THERE.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Thatpers0n2

      *GANGNAM

      October 1, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  15. Psy Impersonator

    Move over Elvis! Thanks the to PSY, I believe it's my time to shine as a slightly obese Asian in North America. I've even gotten around to perfecting my costume, dance and poses. I could probably go around selling my services as a professional Psy impersonator at clubs. Don't believe me? check out http://gangnamstyleheroes.blogspot.ca/ and my sweet outfit. *Also yes, it's just for Halloween. I don't really think I can do the club circuit thing. I'm not that pathetic. :P*

    September 25, 2012 at 3:55 am |
  16. JUGGERNAUT

    September 21, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • MAL

      I think you are lost...

      October 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  17. ShaneB

    I liked it, and I like how humble about it as well. Nice to see someone who's taking the fame in stride.

    September 21, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  18. Lou Cypher

    I don't understand how a Korean guy repeatedly saying
    O P E N C O N D O M S T Y L E
    can qualify as a candidate for "ultimate meme", "universal language",
    or any of the other ridiculous descriptions by CNN.

    September 21, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • Baalzabarber

      please Mitt! Be Quiet! I'm listening to Gangnam Style!

      September 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  19. Tom

    One hit wonder!

    September 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • zaglossus

      Hardly. Check out his other videos on YouTube like "Right Now". He'll be around for awhile.

      September 21, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  20. Stan Lee

    whether people will remember psy one year from now is irrelevant. just because the "western" world forgets about him doesn't means he's gone. he's been plying his trade for over 10 years and has an established fan base where he can and will always return too. his concerts in korea are always packed and his management company yg entertainment has a very shrewd business man at the helm. yg himself has stated in an interview that psy's current success is an exception and not indicative of kpop's acceptance by the western world. having said that, yg is certainly riding psy's coat tails to see where it leads. his other groups like 2NE1 and big bang would never had this kind of success no matter how much money he threw at promotions. i'm sure jype learned this the hard way with the wondergirls.

    many panned the wondergirls and girls' generation when they made various appearances in the american market saying they won't last or they'll fail... again, these groups all have solid worldwide fan bases that they can always rely on. they've been around for almost 5 years and have much success in the asian market. cracking the american market would be the ultimate touchstone moment but not necessary for these groups; they have all succeeded elsewhere and are simply looking to add another market.

    just because the american market no longer remembers these groups doesn't mean they are gone.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • zaglossus

      Many Westerners don't fully appreciate the growing size and power of the Asian Market. Anglophone rockers will not have a monopoly in the future.

      September 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  21. Kimchi

    What's the difference between this and "soldier boy" phase?

    September 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  22. THX1953

    Yeah yeah yeah

    Another Macarena.

    Every few years the Lemmings need another.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  23. JT

    Hadn't heard of it until SNL made fun of it. I think it's hilarious but I don't see it catching on long term... kinda like LMFAO.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  24. Agathos

    That is happening!

    So cool!

    September 20, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  25. North Korea

    PSY is mocking extreme capitalists and fascists like the Republicans. The Devil wears Prada. Women are more attractive wearing sneakers and shorts than fancy dresses and stiletto shoes. Street girls are more fun to be with than fascist girls like Girls Generation. SM Entertainment is the same fascist pig like Hitler, so it can never be successful. People around the world are sick of capitalists nowadays, especially since they are responsible for the unstable economy, global warming, environmental degradation, global wars for oil and many other problems that plague mankind. More than 80% of communication is in body language and tone of voice, and the world got PSY's message subconsciously. A great victory for Kim Jong Il and North Korea!

    September 20, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      Godwin's law. You lose.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • zaglossus

      Wonderful place that North Korea.

      September 21, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • CherryBlossomAngel

      You do realize that this is South Korea not North Korea right. Ignorance is bliss so they say lol. Trying going back to school before making such stupid comments.

      October 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  26. Oscar Pitchfork

    So, basically, everybody likes to see strange people from far away doing weird dances that are unlike anything WE do here. Well, Yeah, without the video you wouldn't have a sudden rush of spotlight huggers saying things like "Oh, I've been listening to him for years ,blah,blah, blah

    September 20, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  27. Nathan McMurray

    Thanks for mentioning my humble post!

    September 20, 2012 at 5:19 am |
  28. Lynda

    Folks.. just enjoy it for what it is. This a change for the rap and mindless music out there. Psy made an entertaining video and I hope he makes a ton of money from it

    September 19, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • michael burr

      hell yea funny vid hope he makes a ton

      October 10, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  29. chittavritti

    Self-deprecating? Yes... And I think Psy is having a big fat last laugh at western culture through the cultural lens of a South Korean...

    September 19, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  30. buffalo

    "Gangnam"? Isn't that Korean for "Macarena"?

    September 19, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • Hugh Jass

      They said it meant 'South Bank' or Southside (of a river). It's where he raps, I guess.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • HURR DURR

      Gangnam is a club/bar district in Seoul. I know cause i spent every weekend there for 2 years.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
      • Hugh Jass

        You're a Seoul man!

        September 21, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  31. Sivick

    Favorite korean ever!

    September 19, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Hugh Jass

      Much better than Kim Chi.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  32. yule

    Seemingly quite an accolade in the beginning, and yet a host of disapproval into the end. How pathetic you mentioned about Psy being laughed at.

    September 19, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  33. Hulot

    What I like about him is his humbleness. He’s been toiling in Korea for the last 12 years. He said during an interview, he was “always the bridesmaid, never a bride” in the Korean music scene. Now he’s their biggest star. I guess there is hope for all who keep plugging away.

    BTW, I disagree that anyone is laughing at him. They are all laughing with him.

    September 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  34. t3chsupport

    Haters gonna hate. I'd like to be hate, and fit in with the other cool hipsters, but it's just too painfully entertaining... Watched one of his other videos, like that too. No idea what he's talking about, but the music is catchy, and his dancing and costuming are hilarious. He obviously isn't taking himself too seriously, which makes him much more fun to watch than those who do.

    September 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  35. walkingfan

    ...S T U P I D...does any one else think that this is the ultimate idiocy? Why does the media feel this is important?

    September 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • James Hawk III

      Dunno who whizzed in your cheerios this morning, mate, but you could probably have kept that disappointment to yourself.

      September 19, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Hugh Jass

      "does any one else think that this is the ultimate idiocy?" No, I think being a "rap critic" is about the ultimate idiocy.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
      • Ayatollah ben Dover

        No, that would be an unpaid volunteer rap critic. THAT would be more pitiful.

        September 21, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  36. LinSea

    My nomination for the Most Annoyingly Overused Word of the Year is 'meme.'

    September 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • angrybabykitty

      Have to agree with you on this. I'm also getting rather tired of the whole "rotten e-card" craze too. Funny at first, but so overused now.

      September 20, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  37. GRS62

    Anyone remember the name of the artists behind The Macarena? My point exactly. You won't remember Psy by this time next year.

    September 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • tendriana

      Difference – I didn't even know the name of the singers when the macarena was popular. I DO know the name of Psy, and I respect him for all the reasons in the article – his humor and willingness to be silly. When Macarena was big, I didn't necessarily enjoy the song, or care about the singers. It was just an easy dance to do at school dances.

      September 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Som

      Seriously. Because the media landscape in 1994 was almost identical to what it looks like now.

      Just need a tad more critical thinking skills there, buddy.

      September 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • MissAbby

      Los del Río. I hated that damn song.

      September 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Hugh Jass

      Geez, did a Korean rapper kick your dog or something?

      September 20, 2012 at 11:56 am |
      • No...

        No, just ate it ;)

        September 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • jcuevas

      Los Del Rio

      September 20, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • zaglossus

      Go check out his other videos on YouTube. This guy is NOT a one hit wonder, even in the West, I predict.

      September 21, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  38. reithena

    I was at Escapist Expo over the weekend and there were various mobs of "Gangnam Style" playing throughout the convention hall with people dancing to it in not so flattering imitation. However, to have something that everyone can just notice by a few notes alone is great.

    September 19, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  39. Markolas

    I've been following Psy since a friend got me hooked on his single "Right Now" a few years ago. Its so good to see him making a name for himself and hopefully other Korean artists in the states.

    We could really use some more variety and diversity in our stale pop-culture.

    September 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  40. Tazar

    As much as I love the song and the video, I don't see PSY or K-Pop in general hitting big in the states. I have a feeling this time next year most people will hardly even remember him or the song.

    But he totally makes it okay for me to walk around in sleeveless dress shirts now. So he'll always have a place in my heart as far as that is concerned.

    September 18, 2012 at 1:19 pm |