Oppan, Gangnam Style globalisation!

Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, explores geo-economic and geo-commercial trends shaping our world, with an emphasis on emerging markets

Korean pop music is sometimes referred to as Hallyu, or the Wave, because of its rapid rise across East Asia. In July 2012, that wave became a global tsunami when a Korean music company uploaded a quirky video by a modestly successful and highly charismatic singer and rapper. The song – Gangnam Style – was an instant hit, receiving 500,000 views on its first day, and its singer, the portly and pleasant Psy, was about to become a global household name.

Over the next month, the Gangnam Style video went globally viral, capturing the attention of music superstars like Britney Spears and Madonna and inspiring flash mobs of Gangnam Style dancers from France to Italy to Indonesia. In Paris, at the Trocadero Gardens, some 20,000 people showed up for a Gangnam dance party in the middle of the day, and 17,000 fans at an Enrique Iglesias concert in Dubai did the Gangnam Style dance together in an attempt to break a world record. The song soared to number one in the charts in thirty six countries, from Scotland to Brazil, Lebanon to Germany. By December, 2012, Gangnam Style broke the Youtube record, becoming the first video in history to cross the one billion view mark.

Today, Gangnam Style still sits atop the Youtube charts with 2.5 billion views – and counting. And if, as the American writer Mark Twain once said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Psy should be overwhelmingly flattered by the tens of thousands of Gangnam Style parodies that have been produced over the past few years, from Saudi Gangnam Style to Opo Pino Style in the Philippines.

Clearly, Gangnam Style was – and is – a global pop culture phenomenon worth a closer look. To me, the rise of Gangnam Style reflects a new form of globalisation, one where the center of economic gravity has balanced toward the East, and where so-called global “South” countries are producing companies and products that are disrupting Western dominance of global markets. Take Tata Motors, for example. The Indian carmaker is selling its products across the world and, in one of the great acts of post-colonial reconfiguration, the Indian carmaker owns the iconic British brands Jaguar and Land Rover.

This commercial story of non-Western companies going regional and global is not entirely new, but it will be a trend that will accelerate over the next decades as innovation grows across emerging markets. Non-Western pop cultural products have a harder time breaking down the near monopoly of pop culture exports from the Western “center” to the global “periphery.” But now, the periphery is producing some of its own pop works that appeal to broader audiences.

Take Turkish soap operas, for example. Turkish soaps have taken the world by storm, from Latin America to the Middle East. Children in Chile or Argentina have been named Onur or Sherezade based on the popular soap One Thousand and One Nights. Iranians re-arrange evening plans to catch the latest episode of a Turkish soap on satellite television.

Then, there is, of course, the Noor wave. The Turkish soap “Noor” hit the Arab world in 2008 like a titanic wave. The Dubai-based, Saudi-owned MBC Group cleverly chose to dub the serial in Syrian Arabic dialect, rather than the classical Arabic of Latin American soaps familiar to Arab audiences. Insert a love relationship between an attractive couple moving from village to city, exotic scenes from Istanbul, and a blue-eyed, blond-haired male heart-throb dubbed the “halal Brad Pitt” that sent many Arab female hearts swooning, and you have a phenomenon on your hands.

What happened next was Arab world television history. Eighty million viewers watched the last episode of Noor. The “halal Brad Pitt” character, Muhannad, inspired admiration from Arab women and jealousy from Arab men – even leading to several divorces from Aleppo to Amman to Dammam, according to reports.

The Turkish soap operas are reflective of a new kind of horizontal globalisation, where countries of the so-called “periphery” serve other “periphery” countries with entertainment, a sort of South-South entertainment flow akin to the rise of South-South trade flows. Nigerian films are another example. Nollywood produces some 2,000 films a year, watched across Africa, and K-Pop remains a force across East Asia.

These for-profit pop culture products may be shunned by “taste-makers” on the film festival circuit that seem to prefer their foreign films to be “exotic” or wretched, but they are gobbled up by the middle classes in emerging markets who like a catchy tune, or a sappy film about universal themes of love, romance, betrayal, revenge.

Gangnam Style remains exceptional for its global reach, but the same technological forces that allowed for a modestly known Korean rapper to go global – social media, lower-cost film-making, easy access to content on smart phones, broader internet penetration, satellite television and cheap TVs – make it easier for other pop culture artists to find new audiences in unexpected places, in a new horizontal globalisation that is reshaping our world.


Afshin Molavi first watched Gangnam Style on a visit to Dubai. He will speak on Gangnam Style Globalisation on March 9 at 6:30 PM at Al Rimal, Intercontinental Festival City. The session will be moderated by noted Emirati commentator and think tank founder Mishaal Al-Gergawi.