Why K-Pop is sweeping the world

The dance hit 'Gangnam Style' has introduced many Americans to the world of South Korean pop music.

Jason DeCrow/Invision/AP
K-pop star PSY

Korean rapper PSY swept the United States this summer with his catchy dance hit "Gangnam Style." The music video – with its goofy horse dance – racked up 467 million views on YouTube and propelled the song onto American radio.

Since the 1990s, South Korea has become one of the world's premier cultural exporters. The country's pop music, K-Pop, has a massive fan following across Asia. But before PSY, it had found little success in the US.

The Korean music industry revolves around large entertainment companies that scout out young talent, bundle them into boy bands and girl groups, teach them how to dance, and then present these highly polished acts to the world.

"They've really perfected this formula," says Colette Bennett, a writer for CNN's Geek Out blog. "The women are gorgeous. The men are gorgeous. The music is catchy and the dancing is superb."

K-Pop borrowed much of this model from the Japanese music industry, but with one big exception. Most of Japanese culture directly targets Japan. Its large population can support just about any cultural industry.

South Korea, on the other hand, is tiny. In order to reach a sizable audience, Korea's music industry needs to look abroad. So K-Pop specializes in tunes that play well in any language. For example, the boy band TVXQ releases versions of its biggest singles in Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, and English. The group even changes its name depending on where it's performing.

K-Pop's international strategy has paid off. A "hallyu" – or Korean wave – has spread across Asia, similar to how the British Invasion brought The Beatles and The Rolling Stones stateside in the 1960s.

But while PSY has opened the door for K-Pop in the US, it arrived with a certain irony. "Gangnam Style," with its quick beat, may be catchy, but Ms. Bennett says that the song caught on because of its zany music video. PSY struts through garbage in a suit, wages a dance-off against an androgynous hoofer, and at one point calls out a miniature look-alike. These comic antics do not reflect K-Pop – they satirize it.

"He has all the components of K-Pop – the dancing, the singing, the clothes – but he also has humor," says Bennett. "And that's a killer combination for Americans."

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