What We Can Learn from Gangnam Style Hitting One Billion Plays

“Gangnam Style” was the perfect storm of continuous and monstrous daily and weekly view counts on YouTube as Korean pop-sensation Psy climbed his way to a historic one billion plays, a record for any single YouTube video and all that in less than six months. Other than having an insanely infectious beat and a hook with ambiguous yet highly memorable lyrics, what catapulted Psy to one billion plays? 

You can point to the well-produced video, the catchy song, and a imitable dance akin to the last generation’s “Macarena”, but it’s a little more than that. Psy had no massive presence outside of South Korea before “Gangnam Style” hit its viral stride, but the track met the sensibilities of pop suitable for any culture. Some American pop doesn’t sit well all over the world, and much of the East Asian pop doesn’t make its way overseas to the States. “Gangnam Style” was met with curiosity and was just the right amount of familiar and mysterious. As YouTube commenters joked, what is Psy chanting during the chorus? He’s singing “oppan Gangnam style” repeatedly. As the annotated lyrics encyclopedia

RapGenius points out in a further elaboration of the lyrics:

“Psy is saying in third person he is boyfriend material, or an attractive guy. Gangnam is a wealthy district in Seoul, where the young people are known to be very prim, proper, and professional during the day, but get crazy at night. ‘Gangnam Style’ connotes not just wealth, but the aforementioned lifestyle.”

Psy mixes just the right amount of mainstream pop with silliness and over-the-top theatrics in the video, all the while leaving himself ripe for parody of his unique style. Part of YouTube viral engine of views is the ability for viewers to make reaction videos. Just like “Call Me Maybe” had the perfect lyrics and hook to be parodied ad nauseum, “Gangnam Style” adds the quirky dancing element to it where copy-cat videos can throw in choreography as well as altered song lyrics to suit their parody’s intentions.

Even for artists who don’t expect to hit a billion or even a million views, in their first go-around, there are a number of strategies to attempt the ultimate viral package: 

Mainstream: Catchy song that is dynamic but still adheres to a pop or rock format.
Video: Unique video concept with enough production and slick editing.
Hook: A chorus that can be sung by anyone even if they don’t know the native language.
Edge: Just enough edginess and innuendo while still maintaining a PG-13 rating and a sense of humor.
Parody: A format, in terms of song and video, that opens itself up for parody or strong reactions of some kind.