Gangnam Style: The Birth of a New Audience or the Death of K-Pop as We Know It?

“Eeeeeey— Sexy Lady! Op-op-op-Oppan Gangnam Style!”

Nearly everyone who owns a computer will have heard this song by now and seen it’s utterly crazy and bizarre music video.  Since its release in July of 2012, Gangnam Style has made singer and rapper, Psy, a K-pop legend by going viral and being the first music video in Youtube history to reach over one billion views in only 5 months, making it the most watched video in the world.  Because of this, K-pop has become known worldwide.  Before Gangnam Style, K-pop remained confined to Asia and the bedrooms of a small community of international k-pop fans around the world.  Now, anyone who knows Gangnam Style is at least aware of K-pop.  American teenagers who have never been aware of the existence of this sub-genre of pop music are now downloading Gangnam Style on their iPods and singing along to its Korean lyrics.

Good thing or bad thing?

As a K-pop enthusiast myself, I was overjoyed when I first heard my beloved Korean language playing on one of the local radio stations.  My friends who used to tease me for being completely engrossed by such an unknown genre of music now share with each other the Gangnam Style video and even some of its seemingly endless parody videos.  Other K-pop artists, particularly Big Bang and 2NE1 who both happen to be under the same label as Psy, YG Entertainment, are also gaining more attention from the Western world in comparison to what I refer to as “Pre-Gangnam Style” times.  Big Bang’s 2012 album, “Alive”, was the first Korean album to ever be included in the famous Billboard 200.  2NE1 have been doing more interviews with American networks such as Fuse.  Tablo of Epik High, another YG group, even landed a BBC interview despite receiving so much negative publicity only a couple years ago.

More subtly, K-pop artists outside of YG Entertainment have been gaining more publicity.  TVXQ!, a duo under SM Entertainment, had their song Catch Me featured in the intro to ABC’s Live! With Kelly and Michael.  The Wonder Girls collaborated with well-known American rapper Akon in an English single, Like Money.  Girls’ Generation is receiving more recognition for their 2011 American debut possibly more now than when it actually occurred and has been hinting about another possible American comeback.

This increased integration of K-pop into Western media is a dream come true for many K-pop fans living outside of Asia whose only source of access to their chosen music is through unreliable youtube videos and hard-to-navigate foreign websites.  Because of the increased interest in K-pop, more concerts are being held outside of Asia, giving foreign fans new hope of seeing their favorite singers live.  A middle class American student who can’t afford to travel all the way to LA, one of the only cities that hosts K-pop concerts, can actually have the chance to attend a Super Junior or Big Bang concert.  With more Americans being introduced to K-pop, Korean singers are guaranteed new fans, expanding their audience.  While most of the big, important concerts are recorded and re-uploaded from Korean TV onto Youtube, the thrill of seeing an actual live performance doesn’t have to be restricted to South Korea, China, and Japan anymore.

While it has been exciting to witness the recent dramatic interest in K-pop, I have also noticed changed in the style of more recent, post-Gangnam Style K-pop.  The songs that are becoming more internationally popular than others of the genre sound significantly more like Western music.  Take Big Bang, who are in my opinion the most internationally known K-pop artist aside from Psy.  I find their music to sound the most similar to popular Western music within K-pop.  Their most popular song of the year, Fantastic Baby, follows nearly the same formula as Gangnam Style: a long rap, a couple singing lines leading up to the chorus, the hook of the song, and then the funky instrumental part to which everyone likes to dance.  Both songs, upon the first listen, instantly reminded me of LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem, one of the biggest dance songs of 2011.  Two of the most internationally popular songs in K-pop very closely imitate one of the most popular songs in Western music.  This is no coincidence.

Let’s face it: Both the K-pop songs and music videos that make it in the larger global music world are the ones that are the least like K-pop.  This is where the downfall of the new attention to K-pop lies.  It is only a matter of time before other Korean entertainment companies notice that it is YG who is gaining the most recognition in the global market and attempt to follow their style.  This would mean more K-pop artists adopting a more Western LMFAO/Nicki Minaj sound to appeal to the larger audience.  While this is great for people who like that kind of music, it would mean taking away the specific sound that we K-pop fans love the most.  The mix of hip-hop and pop would become less about dancing and more about sex and alcohol.  When K-pop becomes popular in the West, it will be because it sounds like Western music and not like K-pop.  This is clearly proven by the success of Gangnam Style.  Ask any K-pop fan: while Psy is Korean and his music does include some elements of characteristic K-pop, Gangnam Style is a bizarre music video even by K-pop standards and his music style is very unique in comparison to common K-pop songs.

Based on my own experiences of listening to K-pop and interacting with other K-pop listeners, I have learned one very important thing about all of us: We like K-pop because it’s not Western music.  We like it because it’s different.  If K-pop becomes part of “mainstream” Western music, it won’t be K-pop anymore; it will just be more of the mainstream, bass-heavy, sex-obsessed Western music that we K-pop fans try to avoid.  Obviously I am making generalizations, but that’s exactly my point: this is the general feel of what is happening in the music world.  Of course not all Western music is about sex and alcohol and there are some K-pop songs that do promote that, but the general trend dramatically points to Western music as promoting those things.

Now let’s be real; none of this may even happen.  Even if some groups adopt the Western style of music, there will always be those smaller groups that stick to that K-pop sound that I know and love.  If it does happen, what do entertainment companies care if they lose their original fans in sacrifice to the global audience of Western music?  As much as I hate to admit it, it is probably way more financially beneficial to shoot for the larger audience, even if it means disappointing their loyal fans.

While I’m grateful to Psy and YG Entertainment for making more people interested in K-pop, I hope that the movement they started doesn’t negatively affect my favorite type of music.

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2 thoughts on “Gangnam Style: The Birth of a New Audience or the Death of K-Pop as We Know It?

  1. I think that some bands will change to fit the western market and Psy’s style of music video that cause the world’s attention (think Hyuna with Ice Cream), but others will stay true to their style. It’s also important to remember that some of the examples you gave occurred before Gangnam style, and may have had an easier time afterwards because western fans could relate. Because of this, I think Psy’s Gangnam Style is gonna have a bigger impact on the videography and the weirdness of Kpop music videos than the actual sound, i.e. SNSD’s I got a boy. Distinctly kpop in sound, crazy in music video.

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