Not long ago PSY’s “Gangnam Style” surpassed Justin Bieber’s “Baby” to become the #1 most watched video on YouTube. When I started writing this, it had 829 million hits. I went to bed and by the time I woke up, it went up 4 million to 833 million. It will be have plenty more by the time you read this. Baby is at 805 million and has been around there for awhile. But in every article I’ve read about PSY’s rise to international stardom, nobody ever really talks about why a song released in Korea by a Korean for Koreans in Korean about a Korean neighborhood became an international sensation. Articles about Gangnam Style’s record hits don’t talk about why he beat out Bieber, who happens to have the same manager. But it’s not hard to figure out with some simple analysis.
Bieber vs. PSY
Let’s start with Baby:
This song is terrible to everyone but Bieber’s fan base, myself included. Its a pubescent boy singing to pubescent girls about pubescent love, with Ludacris chiming in about his adolescent crush in probably the worst performance of his that I’ve ever heard (and I like Ludacris). The video itself is completely unremarkable and generic, it isn’t anything unto itself, which all great music videos are.
Baby is at 805 million hits after 2 years, with the video reaching 600,000 hits after a year and a half and getting the remaining 200 million over the next 16 months. Keep this in mind.
Now onto Gangnam Style:
It’s fun, it’s catchy and it has a very specific dance associated with it, guaranteeing its rotation at dance parties for years to come. The video is one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen. While what he’s making fun of is Korean, the images are universal and can apply to a lot of posh neighborhoods, like the horse barn, the dance studio, the aerobics classes and even the yuppie-looking people on the pink bus.
The chart for Gangnam Style tells a different story than Baby did. The time frame might be shorter, but that’s the entire point. Extrapolate the graph out to Baby’s time frame and the growth will seem be exponential before leveling off. Events such as PSY’s appearance at the VMAs September 9th merely capitalized on the song’s growing popularity.
But there’s another side to this. Gangnam Style’s success marks an important milestone in the music industry: music has been democratized.
It used to be that an artist would find international success based largely on the whims of record companies. When I went to Greece in 2003, finding songs I liked over there here in the US was nearly impossible because they weren’t in US record stores or played on the radio. Even when the iTunes store took off, finding international hits was still dependent on record companies releasing the albums in the US iTunes store.
To put Gangam Style’s importance in perspective, let’s compare with another fun, catchy song with a specific dance that went viral a few years ago: Daler Mehndi’s Tunak Tunak Tun.
Now if you watch this video closely, you’ll notice the dances are pretty similar in some ways (the circular arm wave variation). While I don’t know if PSY has seen this video, to me he’s channeling Dalar Mehndi’s goofy charm through the entirety of Gangnam Style.
But why didn’t Tunak Tunak become a monster international hit despite enjoying international popularity? First, Dalar didn’t capitalize. He didn’t appear at the VMAs and he didn’t release Tunak Tunak in the west. To be fair, however, Tunak went viral when YouTube was still largely a novelty and the corporate presence was virtually nonexistent. His video going viral meant a lot less than Gangnam Style going viral now.
Second, unlike other entertainment media, like books and movies, music has an never-fail formula for success and by that I mean this formula:
Or more simply: Score = (w1 x f1) + (w2 x f2) + (w3 x f3) + (w4 x f4), etc I’ll let Wired explain:
The “w”s are “weights,” or musical features like tempo, time signature, song duration, loudness and how energetic it is. Musical style doesn’t stand still, and the weights have to be tweaked to match the era. In the ’80s, for example, low-tempo, ballad-esque musical styles were more likely to become a hit. Plus, before the ’80s, the “danceability” of a song was not particularly relevant to its hit potential.
Once the algorithm has churned out these weights it’s simply a case of mining your proposed song for these exact same features (the “f”s in the equation) and working out whether they correspond to the trends of the time. This gives you a hit-prediction score.
But I can boil all that down to one word: infectious. Doesn’t matter the genre, doesn’t matter the decade, if a song can get into people’s head and never leave, it’ll be a hit song.
And Gangnam Style is infectious. It conforms to the pretty universal sound of today’s pop music worldwide which is basically electronic dance music, with the difference being whether or not the song is rapped or sung and what language it’s in (If you don’t believe me go pick random J-pop, K-pop, Euro pop and American Pop songs, you’ll see). Tunak lacked universal music appeal. Dancing to Tunak Tunak feels like you’re dancing to Indian Pop music, while dancing to Gangnam Style doesn’t feel like you’re dancing to K-pop.
Enter a song that confirms to universal music tastes with a video that has universal appeal which is featured on a video website with universal reach and the recipe for a monstrous hit is born. Justin Bieber, as talented as he is, just doesn’t have the pull beyond his target demographic. Once they finished gushing over the song, there wasn’t the mass appeal to propel the video further beyond the haters.
In addition, you can bet other acts will attempt to follow in PSY’s footsteps to have international monster hits. However, most will only achieve more modest international success because Gangnam Style hit all the variables in the right places at the right time, which is extraordinarily difficult to do. PSY didn’t even come close to matching his own success with another version of Gangnam Style featuring the vocals of Hyuna, the woman dancing with PSY towards the end of the original video. But PSY’s a Korean cultural icon with a ten year career, he’ll be fine. And Bieber will be fine even if his career tanks because he can live off his earnings for the rest of his life.
Finally, while one can decry the homogenized nature of pop music world-wide, it’s merely a reflection of the universal nature of the Internet. If people can easily access music from across the world via YouTube and other sites, it’s only natural that tastes will will converge and artists will follow suit. While there’s always been a genre called World, that’s always been about showcasing varying musical traditions, not bringing them together. You can kind of say Gangnam Style is more worldly than “world” music, something to ponder.
I’ll leave you off with another K-pop video I came across and loved: Tarantallegra by Junsu. This is as much a result of the world convergence of pop music as Gangnam Style, for reasons that will become blatantly evident :