What’s the secret to K-pop success in the U.S.? Only Psy knows

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 5, 2013 - 20:01
  • Updated : May 5, 2013 - 20:01
Pre-“Gangnam Style,” there had been many attempts by Korean talent agencies to spread K-pop beyond the bounds of Asia and finally infiltrate the oh-so-competitive American music market.

Before Korean rap sensation Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video exploded onto the global music scene, the “big three” Korean entertainment agencies ― S.M., YG and JYP ― had all sent some of their most prominent and successful artists to the U.S. with the hopes that one of their own could make an impression in the West. 
Psy. (Yonhap News)

S.M. Entertainment, currently the country’s most profitable agency, groomed solo artist BoA to make her debut in the U.S. with the release of her English single “Eat You Up” in 2008 and English-language album “BoA” the following year.

Around the same time, YG Entertainment’s hip-hop soloist Se7en also took a stab with the release of his debut U.S. single “Girls” featuring Lil’ Kim.

Although both artists made their U.S. debuts in English while working with American producers, neither was able to make a significant impact, returning home empty-handed.

But of all the acts that have ventured stateside, one of the most valiant attempts at breaking into the American mainstream was by Wonder Girls, a five-member girl group managed by JYP Entertainment.

The group was the first Korean act to have a single enter the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, with “Nobody” in 2009. That same year, Wonder Girls landed the opportunity to open for the Jonas Brothers World Tour 2009 and perform on American TV talk show program “The Wendy Williams Show” as well as reality dance competition program “So You Think You Can Dance.”

In February last year, the girl group starred in “The Wonder Girls” TV movie, which premiered on TeenNick, about a fictional story of the girls entering a talent competition at the renowned Apollo Theater. Later in July, Wonder Girls collaborated with American hip-hop star Akon for the electro-pop track “Like Money.”

But after all these attempts, Wonder Girls were unable to break through, and have since returned to Korea, currently on hiatus from their group activities. 
Girls’ Generation (S.M. Entertainment)

Of Korea’s most successful girl groups is Girls’ Generation (SNSD). The group has enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout Asia since its debut in 2007, with a fan base that continues to expand.

At the end of January 2012, SNSD decided to join the list of K-pop acts attempting to break into the Western market with the release of the English version of its hit Korean track “The Boys.”

Shortly after the English single’s release, the members performed on U.S. talk shows “Tonight Show with David Letterman” and “Live! With Kelly.” However, much like its K-pop predecessors, Girls’ Generation was unable make it big.

After all these efforts, Rolling Stone magazine published a feature on the “10 K-pop Groups Most Likely to Break in America” in May 2012. Although the list included some of the biggest names in the K-pop world ― 2NE1, Girls’ Generation, Big Bang, Wonder Girls, After School, Beast, Ailee, Sistar, SHINee and Miss A ― the one act that did finally overcome this monumental hurdle was on no one’s list.

Psy’s unexpected international success not only took Korea by surprise, but the rest of the world as well. On July 15, the Korean rap star, who had enjoyed little international popularity in the past, released his comedic and cleverly choreographed “Gangnam Style” on YouTube.

What followed is history. With more than 1.5 billion global views, “Gangnam Style” has become one of the world’s most successful songs.

“Gentleman,” Psy’s follow-up single to his record-breaking track, was released worldwide on April 12. The music video which was uploaded onto YouTube the following day broke a world record for the most views in 24 hours with an astonishing 38.4 million hits, making it the rapper’s fourth entry in the Guinness World Records. As of Thursday afternoon, “Gentleman” has been viewed more than 267 million times, alleviating Psy’s public worries of becoming a one-hit wonder.

Psy was the underdog that no one thought could make it big overseas. Whereas the previous K-pop acts who premiered in the U.S. before him had tried to conform and blend in with the sounds and trends of the Western music market and had sung in English, it was Psy’s comedy, creativity and pure entertainment that finally caught America’s interest.

As for an explanation for his phenomenal global success, Psy summed it up best when he stated, “I’m simply an entertainer.”

By Julie Jackson (juliejackson@heraldcorp.com)