K-pop’s global rise nine years after release of Psy’s viral hit Gangnam Style

Up until a few years ago, if someone asked you about K-pop, your first thought would probably be Gangnam Style. It was the addictive song with a catchy chorus and funny horse dance moves, sung by a man in sunglasses and a suit. And for many people, it was their first taste of K-pop. Of course, nowadays boy-group BTS are arguably the most recognised K-pop act globally, but The West has opened its eyes – and ears – to K-pop and South Korean singers (known as idols) are some of the most popular on the planet, and their influence shows no signs of slowing down.

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On this day in 2012 (July 15), Psy released Gangnam Style and its accompanying music video. It overtook Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe on YouTube’s Top 100 Music Videos about a month after its release and continued to spread with the virility that we hadn’t seen since Rebecca Black’s Friday. By September it was getting 9million views a day and was already the most-viewed K-pop video on the platform. It became the first video on YouTube to hit 1billion views in December 2012, and it took three years for another song – Justin Bieber’s Baby – to do the same. The likes of Britney Spears, Robbie Williams, Katy Perry and even Tom Cruise helped spread the song on social media to a global audience, giving people a glimpse into the huge market that is K-pop – albeit a very limited view.

Here in the UK, Psy performed Gangnam Style with students from the Oxford Union, danced it with Scott Mills on Radio 1 and took to the stage at Capital FM’s Summertime Ball. It was nominated for NME’s Best Dancefloor Anthem and, although it didn’t win, won awards around the globe. It also became the first K-pop song to reach No1 on the UK Singles Chart.

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The popularity of Gangnam Style was part of the so-called Korean Wave – a term used to describe a rising global interest in South Korean culture which has been growing since the 1980s. And although its popularity lasted, and people would more than likely still be able to remember the dance moves, K-pop didn’t really rise its head above the crowd of the saturated music market again in the UK again until a few years ago.

That’s not to say it hasn’t had pockets of fans since then. A few groups managed to achieve international interest, but it was when those such as BTS and Blackpink got attention that people around the world really started to listen up.

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K-pop fans mean business. They’re passionate about their favourite groups and idols and work hard to get them noticed and bring them success, whether that be at international award shows, on YouTube or on social media. Eight of the Top 10 most viewed music videos in 24 hours on YouTube are from K-pop acts – four each for BTS and Blackpink, with Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande filling the other two spots. BTS have had two No1 albums in the UK, and scored a peak position of No3 with their 2021 track Butter and 2020’s Dynamite, both English-language songs. K-pop is inescapable, with Dynamite being used on television ads, for example. And with both songs being sung completely in English, they’ve been given a better chance on mainstream radio than the group’s other offerings may have had. You might have even heard them and not realised they were K-pop, instead just thinking they were top tier pop songs.

Of course, that brings in the argument that much of K-pop is just that – good pop music – and shouldn’t be thought of as something separate. But the genre is special and deserves to be recognised as such. The idols go through years of training before making their public debut, and their singing, dancing and rapping skills are often at a level some Western artists could only dream of being. The music videos are cinematic experiences, with big budget sets and styling, and most lead single releases are also completely choreographed. K-pop gives fans an entirely different experience than plain old pop music. It’s one big package that keeps fans simultaneously quenched and thirsty for more. It follows a different model to Western pop too, in that idols and groups generally release a few mini-albums a year, often with very different sounds, whereas some pop stars bring new music out on a much more limited basis. And, like pop music, there is something for everybody’s taste.

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If all you know of K-pop is Gangnam Style, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s all talk-singing over a catchy dance track with funny dance moves to do after a few drinks in the club. Some songs and groups do go for a similar sound, hoping to get that viral hit – like Momoland’s Bboom Bboom and Baam. There is the more classic pop – think BTS, Blackpink and Twice. Groups like Dreamcatcher and Pink Fantasy bring a rock sound. And there’s plenty of Hip Hop and R’n’B influence too, such as with aespa’s most recent comeback Next Level or in mixed gender group Kard. Recently, Disco has had a bit of a revival with releases including Everglow’s La Di Da and Gfriend’s Mago.

The genre’s global popularity as a whole proves that the language barrier really is no excuse to be completely ignorant. Look at Despacito – it’s the second most-viewed video on YouTube (behind Baby Shark, which was first made popular by a South Korean education group, don’t you know?). It’s by Puerto Rican artist Luis Fonso and sung in Spanish, though it was the Justin Bieber remix which helped it gain major popularity. It was all you heard for months after it was released. Do you know what the song is about, or what Despacito means? Probably not – but it didn’t stop millions listening to it.

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Whether or not you actively choose to interact with K-pop for whatever reason – misconceptions about what you’ll hear, the language, the often-annoying fancams that some fans spam underneath viral tweets – it’s not going anywhere. And it’s thanks to the likes of Psy, BTS and Blackpink that more people over here, myself included, know about it and enjoy it.

It’s time for the masses to accept that K-pop is just great pop music, and give themselves up to the addictive songs and, at a time when people really need it, just have some fun.

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