What's the secret to Gangnam Style's success?

With mainly Korean lyrics delivered by a cartoonish rapper riding an invisible horse, PSY's Gangnam Style was an unlikely candidate to become a worldwide phenomenon and unseat the Biebs from his YouTube reign.

Experts say South Korean hit is a 'perfect storm of pop music'

South Korean singer PSY performs his hit Gangnam Style during a morning television appearance in central Sydney in October. On Saturday afternoon, the song's music video became the most viewed video on YouTube of all time. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

With Korean lyrics delivered by a cartoonish rapper riding an invisible horse, Gangnam Style was an unlikely candidate to become a worldwide phenomenon.

But on the afternoon of Nov. 24, the colourful and wacky video for PSY's pop tune became the most-watched YouTube clip of all time, racking up more than 805 million online views. (Justin Bieber's mega hit Baby previously held that title.) At last count, Gangnam Style views had surpassed 834 million.

Korean pop stars and record label executives the world over are no doubt eyeing the tune and its quirky choreography for clues on how to duplicate its success. 

Experts say that while Gangnam Style has all the key elements of a pop hit – including a catchy hook – its success is the sum of many elements, producing a "fluke" that will be tough to duplicate any time soon.

"I don't think any other Korean or Asian artist is likely to repeat this," said Jason Anderson, arts writer and film critic for The Grid newspaper in Toronto.

"I think just having that kind of hit song is such a freak incident. To have a song of this scale, it doesn't create any kind of precedent. It's a scientific fluke. A kind of perfect storm of pop music comes together every once in a while to create this kind of song."

Numerous parody videos

The video for Gangnam Style, which was first posted to YouTube in July, has spawned countless parodies, with everyone from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to Britney Spears to the CBC's own Peter Mansbridge galloping and throwing an imaginary lasso to PSY's infectious synth beat.

Korean rapper PSY, right, teaches UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, how to dance to his massive hit Gangnam Style during a photo opportunity at the UN headquarters in New York. (United Nations, Eskinder Debebe/Associated Press)

"One of the surprising things about that song is that the lyrics are mostly in Korean ... [it's] proved that you can have a global song phenomenon that's not English-language lyrics," said Mark Simos, associate professor of songwriting at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school PSY himself once attended.

"There have been plenty of cases of songs with English lyrics breaking into international markets. Much fewer cases going the other way."

Gangnam Style is not the first international pop track to capture a global audience.

'A hit song can't have the same impact that it used to. Except in this case.'—Arts writer Jason Anderson

Some of its predecessors include Los del Rio's Macarena, a ubiquitous '90s ditty that also featured a signature dance, and Austrian musician Falco's Rock Me Amadeus, in the 1980s.

But in today's fractured pop music landscape, it's more difficult for songs – in any language – to reach the kind of critical mass that Gangnam Style has, said Anderson.

"It's got a lot to do with the way the pop music industry is these days," he said. "It's very polarized. A hit song can't have the same impact that it used to. Except in this case. Hit songs don't have that kind of penetration any more."

English-lyric hook a factor

One key element that helped is the explosion of Korean pop music – so-called "K-pop" – in recent years.

The growing base of fans of that genre inside and outside Korea likely helped give Gangnam Style a boost, said Simos.

"I would imagine that there was a pretty large Korean-speaking population that was a foundation … if you get millions of views from one constituency, that's certainly going to get you on the map and give you a chance of breaking in more globally," he said.

PSY joined Madonna and her dancers onstage to perform his hit song Gangnam Style during her MDNA concert in New York on Nov. 13. (Guy Oseary/Associated Press)

However, the fact that Gangnam Style is a rap song may have also helped it cross over to Western markets, he added.

"You have the rhythmic aspect of the lyrics to engage you there. I don't know if it would have worked as well with a sort of sweet Korean-language pop song or ballad. I'm not sure it would have swept in the same kind of way. You can kind of just listen to the [Gangnam Style] lyrics almost like like a rhythmic track."

The song also has a catchy hook with just enough English – "Heyyyy, sexy lady" – to keep those who don't understand Korean interested, he added.

"Who wouldn't want to sing that?" said Simos, adding that "the way in which it's put together [isn't] all that unusual in that style of pop music."

A 'throwback' to dance craze songs of '50s, '60s

The song's throbbing beat is in line with the European-style techno sounds that are ever-present on Top 40 charts in Western markets.

But there are also song production techniques that PSY used well within the song, said Simos. He points to a portion of Gangnam Style where the fast flashes of sound speed up to an unexpected pause before the music and the rapping reappears.

"That pause is just a little bit out of time… It doesn't come in quite where you expect it. It's a cool musical effect," said Simos. "This is not the first song where something like that happens. But he's used a lot of these kind of production and writing techniques. And it's done well and it creates an exciting dance pop song."

The horse dance is also a key element. Gangnam Style is a throwback to the dance craze songs of the '50s and '60s such as the twist, said Simos.

"Look at the 900 or so imitations of [Gangnam Style] that have sort of sprung up. That particular dance and the moves, that's a lot of what's gone viral," he said.

'Not your typical pop star'

The character PSY himself is an affable "anti-pop star," said Simos. 

"There is no doubt that part of the charm of the video is the quirky character that is not your typical pop star. Not in his looks —he's kind of nerdy. And the dance itself is a little nerdy," he said. "Some of the charm of that is going against type." 

The song's lyrics poke fun at the posh district of Gangnam in Seoul, South Korea. The four-minute video is a barrage of glossy, ridiculous scenes ranging from the South Korean rapper riding a children's carousel to PSY emphatically rapping while seated on a toilet — the kind of quirky clips that tend to go viral online, said Simos.

'It's the fact that he's both adopting pop culture and mocking [it] at the same time.'—Mark Simos, songwriting professor at Berklee College of Music

"It sort of looks like a spoiled rich guy trying to act really hip, and being a little hapless about it … It's the fact that he's both adopting pop culture and mocking [it] at the same time," he said. 

"In a way, it's a very ironic video. The kind of thing that plays really well on YouTube."

Ken McLeod, an associate professor of music history and culture at the University of Toronto, said this kind of pop music sensation could be duplicated, but it's highly unlikely.

"Everyone once in a while, there's a song like Nena's 99 Luftballons that catches people's imagination," he said. "People don't understand, but they like something about it… It will happen again, but it won't happen tomorrow."

With files from CBC News and the Associated Press