Rapper's monster hit puts K-Pop in world spotlight

Euan McKirdy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 4:51pm

In the past few weeks, you would have had to have been hiding under a rock, or at least avoiding all encounters with the media, to have missed South Korean rapper Psy's hugely popular hit, Gangnam Style.

Approaching 400 million hits on YouTube, around six times South Korea's population, this ultracatchy tune has wormed its way into the hearts of tens of millions of fans worldwide.

The rest of the world's love-affair with Korean pop (K-Pop) culture had its roots in the 1990s, when TV output from South Korea, almost exclusively dramas, gained popularity in Japan, the Chinese-speaking world and, to a lesser extent, other parts of Southeast Asia.

In June of last year, a 7,000-seat section of Hong Kong's AsiaWorld Arena was packed with young Hong Kong K-Pop fans. It was the city's first large-scale, two-day concert headlined Girls in Love and Boys in Power, and featured eight leading K-Pop groups from Seoul.

K-Pop, led by fresh-faced young men and women's "idol" groups, is spearheading a completely new trend and introducing the world to this unique musical genre. This Korean Wave has now expanded to include music, film, video games and food.

For many across Asia, South Korean output, especially the TV shows, trumps Western series because it is more culturally relatable. But this theory may be losing credibility as, in the past few years, its influence has expanded far beyond Asia, with K-Pop concerts attracting fans in cities as culturally and geographically remote from South Korea as Paris.

Korean megastar Rain, who marked his Hollywood career with roles in the Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer (2008) and Ninja Assassin (2009), was twice honoured with Time's 100 Most Influential People Who Shaped the World, in 2006 and 2010.

In 2007, he was lauded as one of People magazine's Most Beautiful People. He took his The Legend of Rainism tour to Japan, South Korea, the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Indonesia, before visiting Las Vegas in December 2009. This growing interest in Korean culture has triggered a dramatic increase in overseas visitors to the country. People across the globe are learning Korean as a foreign language to more directly interact with this vibrant, exciting new entertainment that is becoming one of the country's top exports.

Previously held negative connotations of the country are being phased out by these fresh-faced ambassadors - being replaced by images of the "vitality of the trendy entertainers and cutting-edge technology", according to a spokesperson from the Consulate of the Republic of Korea in Hong Kong.

Gangnam Style has topped charts in the United States and Britain, traditionally markets that remain relatively insular and unreceptive to foreign music.

Other media are hoping that Psy's overseas success heralds a new, even brighter dawn for Korea's pop culture, and the country's entertainment industry is hoping to ape the rapper's international good fortune.

There is considerable buzz in North American markets around the Korean film The Thieves, which opens in the US and Canada imminently. The producers are hoping to repeat the box-office success the film achieved in South Korea, where it generated US$13 million in ticket sales and became the country's most-watched domestic film.