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.