On December 21, 2012, the music video for “Gangnam Style,” a song by the Korean rapper Psy, becomes the first YouTube video to garner one billion views. The video’s global popularity is a case study in the power and unpredictability of viral internet content.
Psy had been well-known in Korea for a decade, earning awards and acclaim as well as a reputation for controversy. Though Korean pop music, or K-pop, was increasingly popular outside of South Korea, Psy was not an international star until “Gangnam Style.” Released on July 15, 2012 as the lead single to his album Psy 6 (Six Rules), Part 1, the video would make him a global sensation.
“Gangnam Style” is a send-up of “posers and wannabes” Psy observed in Seoul’s fashionable Gangnam District. Though the lyrics are humorous, it was the video that made the song a sensation beyond Korea. Psy and others perform the “invisible horse” dance, in which the singer pretends to ride a horse and occasionally toss a lasso, in a variety of locations including a stable, a bus, a tennis court and other locales around Seoul. The iconic dance, the memorable chorus of “Hey sexy lady!” and the general over-the-top nature of the video caught the attention of a global audience.
The likes of T-Pain, Britney Spears and Katy Perry noticed the video and drew attention to it on social media. By the end of August, it was garnering over 3 million YouTube views a day, and in December it reached its unprecedented 1 billionth view.
Like other viral videos, “Gangnam Style” inspired countless parodies, reaction videos, and flash mobs. Athletes, television personalities and even politicians—U.S. Representative John Lewis recorded a video of himself doing the dance, and then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron reportedly performed it along with future PM Boris Johnson at a conference—joined in the viral craze. Though no longer the most-watched video on YouTube, “Gangnam Style” was an inescapable cultural phenomenon, serving as an introduction to K-pop for millions around the world and as a lasting example of internet virality.