WaPo | Americans aren’t particularly accustomed to foreign music competing with their own in global markets, so when the South Korean song “Gangnam Style” popped onto U.S. music charts, it was something of a wake-up call. Korean pop music has been thriving in East Asia for years, which is remarkable in itself given the country’s small size and the wealth of successful musicians in its bigger and richer neighbor Japan.
So how do Korea’s music companies do it? Part of the industry’s success comes from being just that: industrial. Musicians are meticulously groomed, songs set to careful formulas, and all of it processed on a grand scale. The New Yorker’s John Seabrook explained the concept of “cultural technology,” a factory-like system whereby everything from composer nationality to eye shadow color to hand gestures is pre-determined by formula and protocol. Seabrook suggests that the “cultural technology” model produces music “too robotic to make it in the West” — the music’s painstaking earnestness also doesn’t quite translate for Americans — and K-pop has indeed long struggled to make it big in Western markets.
How, then, to explain the sudden U.S. success of “Gangnam Style,” written and performed by a K-popper who is of the “cultural technology” system but also an aberration within it: older, less attractive (sorry) and more satirical than his K-compatriots? How did Psy manage to utilize the successes of “cultural technology” — he’s got Americans mimicking his dance and glued to his video, in true K-pop form — while also overcoming the more “robotic” aspects of it that have hampered its Western reach?
The answer may have to do with the timing of South Korea’s “economic miracle,” in which the largely agrarian dictatorship became a wealthy and developed democracy in a few short decades. The country became rich enough to support a big domestic music industry during a time when the way people consume music was changing. Fist tap Dale.