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Psy: One hit wonder or K-pop breakthrough?

HONG KONG -- If you are one of the few who haven't seen South Korean rapper Psy's performance on YouTube (which, until I wrote these words, included me), you're missing not only a piece of power pop, but — some hope — a harbinger of things to come for Asian music artists.

“Is this an anomaly or an inevitability? The feeling has been that sooner or later, (a music artist) from Asia was going to break into the global sphere,” said Ruuben van den Heuvel, executive director of music and technology consultancy, GateWay Entertainment.

Psy became the first South Korean artist to hit number one on the UK music charts, and at the time of this writing was sitting number two on the U.S. charts. Anticipation is so high, Billboard Magazine launched a “Psy Watch” online on whether the artist will crack the number one spot.

“I didn't expect this kind of thing,” Psy told CNN recently. “I made this song, I made this music video and dance moves just for Korea, not worldwide. I didn't expect anything like this: I'm talking to CNN on the VMA (MTV Video Music Awards) — crazy!”

As CNN's Madison Park writes, Psy's song — about the wannabe style of the affluent neighborhood of Gangnam in Seoul — has been sliced and diced with theories about what it means about wealth and class in Korea, and questions about whether Psy embodies the stereotypes about Asian masculinity. The video — featuring his now famous horsey dance — has spawned hundreds of parodies and so far has been watched 360 million times and achieved 3.5 million likes — a record for a YouTube video.

Psy's success was softened by the growing global popularity of Korean pop music, or K-pop. The music follows on the success of J-pop in the 1990s, which found a strong following in Asia but never crossed the Pacific, unable to break through the Western music market. But now K-pop has South Korea punching way above its weight in the global music business. South Korea has seen its global market ranking jump to 11th in the world from 23rd in the past six years, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

Last month, Billboard's annual series of top 21 musicians under the age of 21 listed K-pop star IU at 15th on the list which includes heavyweights in the western music business such as Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber.

Yet Psy is unlike other K-pop artists, an industry fashioned on youthful looks as well as catchy tunes and dance moves. Psy is a stocky 35-year-old. The fact that his song is largely in Korean would make it an unlikely pick for any western music company as a potential hit.

But the force of YouTube and digital downloads is dismantling the old business model for music companies, and Asian artists like Psy are benefiting, analysts say.

“Up to this stage in time, big hit records were driven by the willingness of the record company to get behind the release,” Van den Heuvel says. “Now there is less of a dependence on this, because the web has presented a level playing field.”

“The question that's come about — is he a career artist, or is ('Gangam Style') just the next 'Macarena'?” he adds. “I really, really hope that this guy is going to crack it, because there is nothing more important for the Asian music industry.”

The question is not lost on Psy, who is now working with Justin Bieber's manager to build a career in the west off the back of his hit video.

“(The) music video is more famous than I am,” Psy told CNN last month. “I hate that, you know? I've got to be more famous than video. The video is much more popular. So when I say, 'I'm Psy,' people say, 'Psy?' And so I say, 'The YouTube video,' and people go, 'Ahhh!'

“So I'm here to promote myself and say, 'I'm the guy, I'm the guy and I'm the guy!'”

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