Entertainment

“Gangnam Style” Brought K-Pop To The World, But It Haunted Its Creator

“Let's just do one more,” says Psy, repeating to himself after “Gangnam Style” became a phenomenon. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)
“Let’s just do one more,” says Psy, repeating to himself after “Gangnam Style” became a phenomenon. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Although it doesn’t show, the 45-year-old music executive, dressed in a smart double-breasted suit and hair gelled enough to reflect the overhead lights, confesses to a secret while rubbing his temples: he’s hungover.

But he doesn’t mind putting up with this headache, after 2:00 pm on a Thursday in Seoul. He says that some of his best songwriting ideas come to him during the malaise he experiences after a night of heavy drinking.

The man who suffers so creatively is psythe former global internet sensation whose viral 2012 music video and catchy song “Gangnam Style“They became the first YouTube phenomenon to surpass 1 billion views and made the world gallop with him.

The quirky yet irresistible song and its accompanying video—in which Psy performs the song’s signature horse dance move in and around Gangnam, a posh Seoul neighborhood—achieved global success which until then had eluded most Korean pop, or K-pop, artists.

The video, which now has some 4.6 billion views, was so culturally dominant in 2012 that Barack Obama was asked about it on Election Day. NASA astronauts filmed a skit and a North Korean state propaganda site evoked the move to mock a South Korean politician.

But for several years, after all his viral fame, Psy said the success of the song haunted him. Even when he found himself catapulted into a Hollywood existence overnight, being hounded by paparazzi in New York, signing with Justin Bieber’s manager and releasing a song with Snoop Dogg, internally I felt the pressure of having to produce another hit.

Psy during an interview on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his hit “Gangnam Style”, at his office in Seoul (specifically, in the Gangnam area).
Psy during an interview on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his hit “Gangnam Style”, at his office in Seoul (specifically, in the Gangnam area).

“Let’s just do one more,” he says he used to tell himself.

moved to los angeles to try to start a global career in earnest, an ocean away from his native South Korea, where he was a fixture on the music charts and a source of comic relief on goofy TV variety shows. But none of his attempts he approached the formula that made “Gangnam Style” a worldwide hit.

Psy wasn’t the only one trying to figure out how to reproduce the phenomenon. In South Korea, not only the music industry, but also government officials and economists, studied what it was about the melody, the lyrics, the video, the dance, or the man that had brought the song to levels of success. so unique ubiquity.

And in the decade since the song and video first put South Korean pop music on the map for many around the world, K-pop has become a cultural juggernaut, spanning ever since. markets from East and Southeast Asia to permeate every corner of the world.

Psy performing “Gangnam Style” live on NBC's Today show in New York in 2012. At the time, the video for the song had over 200 million views on YouTube;  now has more than 4.6 billion (AP)
Psy performing “Gangnam Style” live on NBC’s Today show in New York in 2012. At the time, the video for the song had over 200 million views on YouTube; now has more than 4.6 billion (AP)

Artists like BTS and Blackpink have tens of millions of devoted fans, and the bands have an economic impact that rivals the GDP of a small country. The fervor has spread beyond music, to politics, education and even to Broadway.

Some say that Psy deserves much of the credit.

Psy single-handedly put K-pop on a different levelsaid Kim Young-dae, a music critic who has written extensively about the industry. The song was a “turning point” for the Korean music scene and paved the way for the surge of interest and commercial success that followed South Korean stars, Kim said.

Now, 10 years after his moment of glory, Psy, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, is back in South Korea, where he has founded his own music label and management company, and tries to recreate the magic with the next generation of K-pop talent as one of the industry’s trendsetters.

“One of the things I like most about this job is that it is unpredictable. Between us we say that we are in the ‘business of covers’, because you don’t know what you have until you open it”, Psy said in an interview at the offices of his music label based in – where will it be? – the Gangnam neighborhood in Seoul. “You don’t know where the shots will come from.”

With 10 artists under his wing, including TNX, a newly formed six-boy band, Psy says he feels immensely more energized to shape and direct other people’s careers than when he was solely responsible for his own.

A decade after his moment of glory, Psy has created a music label and a talent management company. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)
A decade after his moment of glory, Psy has created a music label and a talent management company. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

And while you can give your budding stars advice based on decades of industry experience, what you can’t do is offer sure-fire instructions on how to succeed.

Despite all the years he’s been thinking and talking about “Gangnam Style”, he’s still so embarrassed as anyone for his success.

“The songs are written by the same person, the dance moves are by the same person, and they are performed by the same person. It’s all the same, but what was so special about that song?Psy wondered. “Until today, I still don’t know”.

All over the world, Psy and his “Gangnam Style” are the epitome of a shooting star. But in South Korea, he had already been known as a rapper and musician for a decade, and he had carved out a different path for himself than many of his peers because he didn’t count on the drive for his physical appearance or avoid the controversy.

He never had the chiseled look that was sought after in the South Korean pop music industry, and since the release of his first album in 2001, he has become known for his forceful, profane, and sometimes profane lyrics. “I Love Sex” was one of the tracks on his debut album, Psy from the Psycho World!which was subject to a ban on sales to minors at the behest of the country’s Christian Ethics Movement.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his unapologetic iconoclastic character over the past two decades in his home country of South Korea, this man who dropped out of college has continued to garner chart-topping hits, albums with massive sales and sold-out concerts.

“It is a bit ironic that it has become such an icon: went from being occasionally censured to being widely celebratedsays Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based creative services agency that provides marketing and distribution solutions to Korean music artists and their labels. “Irreverently, he went from K-pop bad boy to K-pop golden boy in the blink of an eye.”

For a pop song, “Gangnam Style” also set off a avalanche of deep reflections and analysis about the various aspects of South Korea and Seoul that were said to be being lampooned: the hypocrisy of the new richthe superficiality of its social norms and the inequality exemplified by the opulent neighborhood of Gangnam.

Psy insists that the song never intended to make any deep social commentarybut just wanted to give people a few minutes of mindless fun and a break from reality.

In any case, he said, it was mocking himselfbecause he does not aesthetically fit the profile of a stylish Gangnam inhabitant.

“It’s funny because someone who doesn’t look ‘Gangnam style’ says they are,” he said.

The Gangnam area in Seoul (Reuters)
The Gangnam area in Seoul (Reuters)

Originally under development in the 1970s to expand Seoul south of the Han River, Gangnam has become a coveted location where many of the capital’s wealthy congregate and top schools are concentrated, a disparity education that is likely to ensure that the inequalities symbolized by the neighborhood continue for the next generation.

In the years since Psy made Gangnam a globally recognized, if often mispronounced, proper name (“Gang” sounds more like second half Hong Kong; “nam” like Vietnam), the neighborhood has become increasingly unreachable for the average South Korean. Nowhere have out-of-control real estate prices risen as high as in the Gangnam area.

If you say you live in Gangnam, people look at you differently”, says Jin Hee-seon, former vice mayor of Seoul and professor of urban planning at Yonsei University. “He is a object of desire and envy”.

Raised in the Gangnam area in a family that ran a semiconductor business, Psy now lives north of the river with his wife and twin daughters and says he spends little time thinking about the place.

What he has returned to recently is his characteristic live performances.

Their concerts are legendary in South Korea for being very loud and fun. His music—loud and energetic—is often accompanied by equally outrageous dance moves, which force him to jump, kick, and wave his arms wildly in the air. During his six-city tour this year, his first since the pandemic, he said he was surprised to see that despite his age, his joints and limbs are still as agile as ever.

On his latest album released this April, his ninth, he collaborated with BTS rapper Suga on a single titled “That That.” In the music video, Suga comically duels—and kills—the blue-tuxedo Psy from the 2012 video. (That video has amassed 369 million views.)

As for the pursuit of world fame that once nearly drove him mad, he says he’s made peace with its absence.

If another good song comes along and if that happens again, great. If not, so be it“, said. “For now, I’ll do what I like in the place that belongs to me.”

© The New York Times 2022

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