What is it about Psy, his worldwide hit and the crazy video for Gangnam Style? How did it become the world’s most liked video in Youtube history (650 million views and counting)?

Is it a milestone for the industry or a new version of a one-hit wonder?

This incredible story raises many questions, of which I see three main ones:

– Is there a magic formula for creating the world’s most viral video?

– Is this the way forward for artists in the future?

– Is this the unmistakeable sign that K-pop is the next big thing?


The perfect viral video

Gangnam Style is now considered as the perfect viral video. For sure, it checks all the right boxes: a choreography that can be learnt in the time it takes to watch the video just once, wacky colourful costumes, a pattern of scenes each associated to specific parts of the song (chorus, bridge etc..) and repeated many times, an English sounding gimmick on the chorus, topped with a solid dose of self-derision and fun…

The interesting aspect behind Psy not taking himself seriously is that he cleverly parodies codes a vast majority of people in the Occidental world are perfectly familiar with. Codes we have all fully integrated in the course of the past decades of hip-hop  (the I’m-too-cool-for-school posture of the guy rapping to the camera and any scene displaying clear signs of wealth and success), teen pop (from Britney to N’Sync and all artists where the chorus was the moment in the video where they did their dance steps with a bunch of backing dancers), R&B (boy-girl dance battles anyone?), electro (full on street party spirit) and so on and so forth. You’ll find many more references no doubt.

A recent article on Techdirt suggested Gangnam Style’s incredible virality was down to the fact Psy had not copyrighted the video or choreography, thereby encouraging everyone to do their own versions, start parodies and share the video as much as possible.

All these factors indeed add up but what is intriguing is that there is nothing new or groundbreaking about the video content in itself here. Come to look closer at it, Psy takes the whole concept of what OK Go started in music videos a step further.

How is that, and why so, you ask? OK Go were pioneers for many reasons: the choreographies they did themselves, the humour, the self-derision. More importantly, the band were absolutely adamant their videos should be embeddable on all websites and blogs at a time when, remember, the music industry was trying hard to stop this as it threatened the copyright and collection of royalties. (OK Go were even in public disagreement with their own label at the time, EMI). But it paid off: hundreds of parodies, thousands of home-grown versions and millions of shares. Hence the fact these videos became part of music video history and beyond. These videos (especially Here It Goes Again, also known as the “Treadmills video”) took the band and their concept to another level, won them many awards (MTV Video Award most notably) and distinctions (YouTube invited them to be part of their 5 year anniversary alongside the 4 other acts that were most relevant to the community).

There are differences though. You could bring these down to context, but not only. First, OK Go did their videos in one take and weren’t afraid to show it was totally DIY. Even better that way actually. They also amply communicated on the ridiculously low amounts their videos had cost to make (upward from $5 or so). The message was that a music video wasn’t just about how much money you had but rather about being smart, creative and doing “cool stuff”. Second, OK Go imperatively wanted to gain back control over the creative process they felt their label had taken away from them while offering them no alternative. In that sense, their move was “political” vs. Psy’s which is purely commercial. He hasn’t done this video to break free from but rather hand in hand with his label. And that’s a whole different story.

Notwithstanding the fact that Psy is no overnight sensation but has been releasing records on the same label for the last 11 years and was already a huge pop star in his home country, his incredible success is also due to the fact he added a few ingredients of his own in the viral video recipe.

The video for Gangnam Style’s first quality is… the music. The song itself is accessible to all audiences, it is mainstream electro-pop music with a sound slap bang in the current EDM trend and in the vein of the LMFAOs of this world.

Second, the background for Gangnam Style is ambitious: many different situations and as many costumes and settings, a lot of professional editing, a big budget, a minutely planned video release… the ultimate goal for Psy and his label was nothing short of world domination. The recent diplomatic spat between South Korea and Japan about the latter not “understanding” Psy enough speaks volumes on the matter.

And well done for pulling it off. The video is the most liked in Youtube history, making it a Guinness Book of Records-breaker. The song hit #1 on iTunes in at least 10 countries, charting high on airplay in many countries and a 17,000 capacity show is planned in the USA in January 2013. On the basis of this one song. Call it a home run. Which leads us to the next question…


Is this the way forward for artists in the future?

Don’t try this at home, kids! Nah, just kidding. Sure you can. Why don’t all artists craving for a breakthrough just copy the magic formula? If only it were that simple. If it was just about coining the right recipe and blend of the right ingredients, many more artists would have achieved real success with their videos. I don’t personally believe this industry’s future will be about a one-size-fits-all business model and/or marketing plan. Or creating the most viral video out of nowhere.

Not all artists can afford to pay for such a video. Even if they managed to raise enough through a crowdfunding campaign, would they want to spend it all on one video? Would it make sense for them to do so? When they don’t have the backing of a major label, a major publisher, manager, live promoter – each with connections worldwide?

It always comes back down to doing what is right what makes sense for the artist. From a creative point of view before anything else. The rest should be secondary. These questions are the essential ones: what is your message? How do you want to express it? What is your ultimate goal? Who are you are you trying to reach? Who is receptive to your message and values? Only then you can ask yourself how much budget/money you have available and get creative.

Because if you just stay focused on copying Psy’s success, that would mean any aspiring artist should start learning Korean immediately to be able to surf of the tide of K-pop we are being predicted is about to hit us. Neither realistic nor a good idea.


Is Psy’s success the unmistakeable sign that K-pop is the future?

Sure, things are a-changin’, and the US media are fascinated enough by Psy’s incredible achievement that they are starting to analyse it to see what lessons can be learnt from it. Which is a healthy thing.

Nearly a year ago, Martin Frascogna, a fellow midemblogger and excellent music attorney I’m privileged to work with, took a bet that K-pop would invade the US, on the basis of a very valid argument that demography is on its side.  A recent article also looked at the correlation between broadband access and global Korean music industry business models and revenue mix was the main secret behind mainstream appeal. These are all very shrewd points that will be well worth watching how they evolve.

I’d also like to add my 2 cents.

One: There is always a tendency to predict widespread continuing success for every phenomenon that takes everyone by surprise. Remember Tokio Hotel, the German boy band that managed to increase German language class subscriptions amongst teenagers by insane proportions? The girls were hysterical, all fans would sing the lyrics in German and the album was released worldwide. The life-span of the band was a good five years… but no other German bands were able to match that, despite all labels trying to capitalise on the tidal wave (and there were many other similar bands that had the profile to be exported successfully).

Two: If you look at the actual countries via which the Gangnam Style phenomenon spread, it is fascinating. For things to spill over to the occidental world, it went through Asia first, then… world domination became possible because the video garnered the US seal of approval before being imported into Europe via the US, not from Asia directly.

Three: At midem this year, I found it really interesting that so many Asian labels and industry people should have made the trip. This was quite new. So I went to see as many as I could. What struck me was that they were all after the same thing: exporting their artists, not importing occidental artists. Also, they were essentially looking to export their K-pop, C-pop, J-pop or T-pop acts as such. No English versions, no change of production, no adaptation of the video. Very telling. Now if we go back to the factors of success in Psy’s video, we’ve come full circle: occidental visual references, English-sounding gimmick on the chorus, and mainstream electro music.

For K-pop or any Asian pop to become a huge success worldwide, it still comes down today to the approach and the product: occidental music and occidental codes targeted at occidental audiences who will forget about not understanding the lyrics. As long as the lyrics are the only element of the “product” that is culturally different, and therefore considered exotic. Food for thought.


Read all of Emily’s midemblog posts  – including our most-shared ever post! – here. You can follow Emily’s company, Unicum Music, on Twitter & check out its website here.


And if more proof of Psy’s global megastardom was needed, here he is at Paris’ Trocadero, today!


About Author

Emily Gonneau is the founder and CEO of Unicum Music, Nüagency and La Nouvelle Onde. She is also an expert for JUMP, the European Music Accelerator programme, an Associate Professor at Paris Sorbonne University and the author of “L’Artiste, le Numérique et la Musique”, IRMA (2019, 2nd edition). She is also a frequent contributor to midemblog :)


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