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Gangnam Style: Fluke or New Media Masterpiece?

Psy – Gangnam Style

If you aren’t Korean, odds are you don’t listen to much K-Pop, and you probably can’t name more than a few artists (if any at all). But every day it’s becoming increasingly likely you’ve heard of Psy, the 34 year old K-Pop sensation behind “Gangnam Style.” If you’re still in the dark about it, “Gangnam Style” is a catchy pop song with an amazing music video that has gone massively viral, with over 159 million hits on YouTube at the time of writing, and countless parodies and homage videos. Though it has only been up for 2 months, it is the most watched K-Pop video of all time on YouTube. It was featured at a Dodgers game where Psy himself was in attendance, and recently he even made an appearance at MTV’s Video Music Awards. It has started its own dance craze where people pretend to ride an invisible horse. The entire video is wacky and hilarious and actually provides some subtle commentary on Korean materialism.

But all of this doesn’t explain just how this video became so wildly popular. There are plenty of other hilarious and clever videos on YouTube, but very few videos ever get as many hits as Gangnam Style already has. It’s even stranger if you consider that many of the video’s viewers are Americans, most of whom can’t understand a word of Korean. One could argue that the funny visuals and catchy song help, but again, there are plenty of videos that are funny even if the viewer can’t understand the language in them (look up “Gaki no Tsukai” on YouTube sometime, for example). Instead of looking at the content of the video, it might be more insightful to look at just what helped it rise to fame in the first place.

On July 29th, the video was shared on Twitter by American rapper T Pain. His tweet was retweeted over 2000 times, but that was just the beginning. T Pain continued tweeting about it, and it soon caught the eye of several other famous Americans, including Ryan Seacrest, Katy Perry, and even Tom Cruise. Each of these people is followed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people on Twitter. If we consider Twitter as a social network graph, these celebrities are highly connected nodes who have links just about everywhere in the global social network. Much like the book recommendation graph we saw early in the course, the celebrity nodes were the keys to Gangnam Style’s absolutely incredible spread.

From these people alone, over a million people were exposed the video. If even a small fraction of those people recommended it to their friends, it would’ve gotten several million hits. However, the video was funny and catchy enough that a huge number of people continued passing it along through the social network, and it has spread across Facebook and blogs and even major news outlets. But it all started with T Pain and other popular tweeters and bloggers. In some ways it’s very similar to how many artists became famous in the past: they were “discovered” by some famous music producer or musician, and that gave them the bump they needed to show just how talented they were. Now, however, we have real data that corresponds to that rise in the form of YouTube hits and references from other websites, meaning we can track a career in far more detail than we could ever before.

For now, Psy is the undisputed king of the viral video. But internet fame is transient, and the question remains: will Psy be able to leverage this time in the limelight to become the first K-Pop star to make it big in America? It’s not an easy task, but he’s going to have a lot of help. He recently worked out a record deal with Schoolboy Records, owned by Scooter Braun, the man who helped Justin Bieber on his own rise to fame. Other acts on Schoolboy include Carly Rae Jepson, another viral sensation from earlier this year. If anyone knows how to use internet fame to generate real life artistic fame, it’s Braun. One thing is for sure, though: YouTube and Twitter were essential to his big break, so it seems very likely that Psy will want to use them yet again for his next big single.

-Oppa Big Bird Style


T Pain’s tweet that started the landslide

Gangnam MTV Style: Psy Signs With Justin Bieber’s Manager, Performs at VMAs


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September 2012