Most Korean attempts at marketing Westward are woefully tone-deaf. But PSY doesn't come off as a slick, calculating poser; he actually seems to be having fun-- and in a freewheeling, fuck-you, devil-may-care way, no less. Americans respond to this: in true Taoist fashion, PSY succeeds without even trying.
But my own theory about PSY's success is simpler: he's a nonconformist square peg in society's round hole, and this quirky individualism is what grounds his appeal in the West. Whether PSY is parodying the rich or engaging in massive self-parody makes little difference, pace the Wall Street Journal: the point is that PSY isn't a Cylon (PSYlon?). Most Korean groups fail in the West precisely because they have a manufactured, unspontaneous, overly saccharine look about them. PSY, by contrast, doesn't have the air of someone who has undergone massive plastic surgery to make him into an aerodynamic sex doll. Far from being a boy-band clone, he's channeling the rough-edged, uncouth John Belushi, but with a bit of a Korean twang.
In the Financial Times article (linked above), Christian Oliver writes:
The broader lesson from Gangnam Style is that it is many miles from the manicured, sanitised view of Korea that the apparatchiks have sought to project. PSY looks more like a ssireum wrestler than a pop star. He sings from the toilet, goes to the sauna with gangsters and pokes fun (albeit very gently) at some of his country’s social pressures. There’s an earthiness and boisterousness here that state tourism and branding officials have always tried to shun. They need to learn to engage with it.
Amen to that.