On July 15, 2012, South Korean pop star Psy released Gangnam Style, a satirical tune that would go on to become what was once the biggest South Korean hit of all time. It captured the attention of the world, and became the first music video to pass 1 billion views on YouTube.
Ten years later, Gangnam Style ’s legacy as a history-making hit is undeniable. But since then, many other South Korean acts, such as BTS and Blackpink, have set their own records, whether it’s by selling millions of albums, racking up hundred of millions of streams, or topping charts around the world. K-pop has grown exponentially, and K-pop acts have become some of the most in-demand collaborators for artists around the world.
Definitive proof that, 10 years after Gangnam Style, K-pop is bigger and better than ever came again in the past few days, via two midyear metrics.
On July 17, South Korea’s Circle Chart, recently renamed from the Gaon Chart, revealed that 34.9 million copies of the top 400 physical albums had been sold in the country in the first half of 2022. That’s up 34.6 per cent from the same period in 2021 and more than three times the figure from the same period in 2018.
Then there was the release of the midyear report by American music tracking organisation Luminate, formerly known as Nielsen Music. Of the top 10 albums sold in the US (digital and physical), three of them were from Korean acts: BTS’s Proof was second, behind Harry Styles’ Harry’s House ; Stray Kids’ Oddinary ranked sixth; and Tomorrow X Together’s Minisode 2: Thursday’s Child ranked 10th.
In terms of physical CD album sales tracked by Luminate (i.e. not including vinyl sales), BTS’s Proof (1st), Stray Kids’ Oddinary (2nd) and Tomorrow X Together’s Minisode 2: Thursday’s Child (4th) were joined by Seventeen’s Face the Sun (8th), NCT 127’s Sticker (9th), and Enhypen’s Dimension: Answer (10th).
The second half of 2022 is gearing up to see similarly big numbers for K-pop acts. Sunday saw the news that Aespa’s new Girls album hit No. 3 on the US Billboard 200 chart, making the quartet one of only three K-pop girl groups, along with Blackpink and Twice, to have ever broken into the chart’s top 10, thanks to over 1.6 million albums sold ahead of the album’s release.
Ten years after Gangnam Style, K-pop history is made almost monthly. But if what was once rare becomes commonplace, what makes a record truly historic? And when many acts are setting new records with millions of sales and billions of streams, what makes a definitive musical hit in 2022?
Of course, there are still big hit songs that transcend individual fan bases, but it feels like ever since Gangnam Style, globally iconic pop songs have become rarer and rarer. There’s Luis Fonzi’s Despacito , maybe, or BTS and Blackpink’s Butter and Ddu-Ddu Ddu-Ddu, respectively. But it seems like recent hits appeal mainly to particular groups of fans, as opposed to when the whole world was dancing along to Gangnam Style.
(I don’t want to imply that just because music appeals to specific groups of fans it is a lesser success. I think it’s demeaning when the media implies this; fans are audiences like anybody else.)
It feels like an important cultural touchstone has been lost. When a song or album tops a sales chart or goes viral on TikTok, but never really crosses over to other platforms or appeals to a wider range of fans, pop or otherwise, it seems like the achievement is less momentous.
Does it even really matter in the modern state of musical disunity? I’m not sure. Just because many people around the world might not have heard of albums or songs that plenty of others are listening to, it does not mean that the music is not a success.
But I can’t help missing the sense of unity I felt during moments when a viral hit like Gangnam Style brought people from around the world together in enjoying it in quite the same universal way. I hope we get to see a few more in the near future, from K-pop stars or other hitmakers.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.