Sometime last Friday, Gangnam Style made YouTube history - yet again - by reaching one billion total views. The march to this digital milestone hasn't been quiet: it's been surrounded with hysterical speculation about what the video's incredible popularity “all means for society.”
I am here to tell you that everything is going to be okay. Society is still fine, and Psy’s one billion views on Gangnam Style is not a sign of the Apocalypse as many feared last week. Nor is it a sign our society is turning into “Idiocracy” or drugs and meaningless babble, as Bill O’Reilly suggested last month.
Gangnam Style and its success is simply a byproduct of our interconnected digital world as told through video, digital culture in the form of memes and GIFs, and last but not least, how music now spreads in the form of YouTube videos.
Parodies Pay The Bills
As a music video, Gangnam Style is colorful, irreverent and awe-inspiring in its wackiness. Like any good viral video, Gangnam Style put bread on the table for do-it-yourself YouTube content creators in the form of countless parodies and mashups - some of these collected a million views on their own, earning their creators a pretty penny. A good parody video is the YouTube equivalent of movie review or essay by an esteemed writer, if you will, and the sheer number of parodies is a good gauge of how effectively the original video captured the cultural zeitgeist.
Put another way, YouTubers love doing videos about Gangnam Style because it makes them money, and parodies and mashup videos feed the hype machine.
That Absurd Global Culture
The images in Psy's music video feel familiar to Western audiences; the little kid dancing like Michael Jackson, sexy ladies doing yoga and all the references to Hollywood movie tropes like walking into the wind or away from explosions. This familiarity simply means we now have a shared, global culture - one that Gangnam Style was able to reference with an appropriate level of absurdity. You can laugh both at Psy and with Psy.
Despite this familiarity, though, Gangnam Style still maintains a certain exoticism, which is a good thing to non-Koreans. Sharing a good music video with your friends is one thing, but sharing a popular music video from another country? You're now "worldly."
Singing In Korean: An International Novelty
In fact, Gangnam Style's "Koreanness" likely helped its spread; the video required decoding and gave those that understood the secret meanings a bit of a superiority complex. It was no accident The Atlantic's "Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea's Music Video Sensation" is one of the most popular posts on the site, referenced by almost anyone writing seriously about Gangnam Style.
For people not interested in decoding "Gangnam Style," the foreign language lets listeners project whatever they want onto the song, again broadening the appeal. And don't forget the explosion of K-pop in Western cultures.
You're so GIF-able!
“Time [Magazine] needs to switch from "Person Of The Year" to "GIF Of The Year" to stay relevant,” tweeted Media Matters Simon Maloy a few days ago, and he has a point. 2012 was the year of the GIF, and Gangnam Style was incredibly GIFable. It's hard to say which there are more of, Gangnam Style parody videos, or Gangnam Style GIFs? Either way, GIFS have become the go-to form of expression among many Internet users.
Remember the Macarena? It swept the globe in the mid-90's and is still a crowdpleaser at weddings. Gangnam Style is just like that, except instead of multiple steps, you ride an invisible horse and occasionally attempt to lasso the air. Its inherent ridiculousness makes people laugh and have a good time doing it.
YouTube: The Poor Man's Juke Box
Back in August, media outlets were shocked to learn that two-thirds of teens in the United States use YouTube as their primary method of listening to and discovering new music, primarily because it is free. Many people no longer purchase music, they just play the songs they want to hear through YouTube. Music is the dominant traffic driver to YouTube, as brand and marketing analytics company ChannelMeter kindly displays in the pie chart below.
Finally, remember what Gangnam Style topped to become the most viewed video; Justin Bieber's Baby. Baby had so many views because tween girls were slapping the "repeat" button over and over again. People were also hitting that button for Gangnam Style. At least I was, as I was not about to pay money to listen to it.
Gangnam Style is not unique. Look for its YouTube record to be broken soon enough by another musician, with another catchy pop song and dance. That's the YouTube way.