Gangnam Style and the Power of Hallyu

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"Gangnam Style," released in July 2012 by South Korean musician Psy, was likely the first introduction to Korean popular music for many people across the globe. Known for its catchy beat, iconic horse dance, and comedic and visually impactful music video, the song became the first video to reach one billion views on YouTube in December 2012. It remained the most viewed video on the platform until July 2017. However, "Gangnam Style" marked not the start of the Korean Wave (Hallyu), but rather the culmination of over a decade of growing international interest in Korean popular media and culture, which had been facilitated both by government promotion of soft power and the growing ubiquity of the Internet and social media.

In the late 1990s, Korean TV dramas began airing in China, and Chinese audiences took interest in the Korean dramas, as well as Korean idol groups. In 2002, the drama Winter Sonata and musical artist BoA made huge waves in Japan, with BoA becoming the first Korean artist to sell over a million album copies in the country. In the following years, dramas like Dae Jang Geum and artists like TVXQ gained popularity across East Asia, with some artists releasing Chinese or Japanese-language versions of their singles. The popularity of Korean media led to an increased interest in Korean cuisine and tourism to Korea.

From 2005 onward, online media streaming sites like YouTube and growing access to the Internet led to a change in media distribution practices, as more and more people across the globe had nearly instant access to both legal and bootlegged copies of K-dramas and K-pop through download or streaming. Fans began collaborative subbing of dramas and music videos in their own languages in almost real-time after the release of new content. Global fan communities formed online in blogging sites and forums. It was around this time, in the late 2000s that Western audiences began becoming interested in Korean popular culture.

K-pop artists had performed in North America since 2003, but by 2011, artists began to hold concerts in Europe and Latin America, as well. Korean dramas also gained popularity in the Middle East. In 2012, KCON - a conference all about the Korean Wave - was first held in the U.S., and as of 2017, is held multiple times a year in various cities across the globe. The Korean Wave, including Gangnam Style, led to a boom in university students studying the Korean language and exchange students studying at Korean universities.

Thus, while "Gangnam Style" shined an international spotlight on the Korean Wave, already existing online infrastructures and passionate fan communities helped make it such a global success.

[Pansori and K-POP (K-HERITAGE)]

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  • Lee, Sangjoon and Abé Mark Nornes, Ed. 2015. Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media. University of Michigan Press.