‘Gangnam Style’ brought K-pop to the world, but haunted its creator

3. Psy
South Korean singer and producer Psy in the office of his music company in Seoul, South Korea, on October 6, 2022. (Photo: NYTimes)
SEOUL— He may not look it, in a spiffy double-breasted suit and a coiffure secured with enough hair gel to reflect the ceiling lights, but the 45-year-old music executive confides a secret as he rubs his temples: He is hung over.اضافة اعلان

But he does not mind nursing this headache, at well past 2pm on a Thursday in Seoul. Some of his best songwriting ideas come to him, he said, in the malaise that follows a night of hard drinking.

The man doing the creative suffering is Psy, a onetime global internet sensation whose 2012 viral music video and earworm of a song, “Gangnam Style”, became the first YouTube offering to surpass 1 billion views and had the world galloping along with him.

The outlandish but irresistibly catchy song and accompanying video — which has Psy doing the tune’s signature horseback dance move in and around Gangnam, an upscale Seoul neighborhood — achieved the breakthrough, worldwide success that had mostly eluded Korean pop acts, or K-pop, before then.

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

But for several years in the aftermath of all his viral fame, Psy said, the song’s success haunted him. Even as he was thrust overnight into a Hollywood existence, getting chased around New York City by paparazzi, signing with Justin Bieber’s manager and releasing a single with Snoop Dogg, internally he felt the pressure mounting for another hit.

“Let’s make just one more,” he said he kept telling himself.

He moved to Los Angeles in an effort to get a global career going in earnest, an ocean away from his native South Korea, where he was both a fixture of the music charts and a source of comic relief on silly television variety shows. But none of the attempts came close to replicating the formula that made “Gangnam Style” a global success.

Psy was not alone in trying to figure out how to reproduce the phenomenon. In South Korea, not only the music industry but government officials and economists, too, were studying just what it was about the tune, the lyrics, the video, the dancing, or the man that had vaulted the song to such singular levels of ubiquity.

And in the decade since the song and video first put South Korea’s pop music on the map for many around the world, K-pop has become a cultural juggernaut, expanding out from markets in East and Southeast Asia to permeate all corners of the world.

Artists such as BTS and Blackpink command devoted fans numbering in the tens of millions, and the bands wield an economic impact that rivals a small nation’s gross domestic product. The fervor has spilled over beyond music into politics, education, and even Broadway.

Some say Psy deserves much of the credit.

“Psy single-handedly placed K-pop on a different level,” said Kim Young-dae, a music critic who has written extensively about the industry. The song was a “game changer” for the Korean music scene and paved the way for the groundswell of interest and commercial success that the South Korean stars who came after him experienced, Kim said.

Now, 10 years on from his lightning-in-a-bottle moment, Psy, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, is back home in South Korea, where he has started his own music label and management company and is trying to re-create the magic with the next generation of K-pop talent as one of the industry’s tastemakers.

For all the years he has spent thinking and talking about “Gangnam Style”, he remains just as mystified as anyone by its success.

“The songs are written by the same person, the dance moves are by the same person and they’re performed by the same person. Everything’s the same, but what was so special about that one song?” Psy said. “I still don’t know, to this day.”

In global terms, Psy and his “Gangnam Style” are the epitome of a one-hit wonder. But in South Korea, he had been well-known as a rapper and musician for a decade before, carving out a path that differed from many of his fellow performers, in that he did not count on a boost from his physical appearance or shy away from courting controversy.

He never had the chiseled look sought after in South Korea’s pop music industry, and from the release of his first album in 2001, he became notorious for his blunt, profane, and at times ribald lyrics.

Despite — or perhaps because of — his unapologetic, iconoclastic ways, over the past two decades at home in South Korea, the college dropout has consistently logged chart toppers, bestselling albums, and sold-out concerts.

Initially targeted for development in the 1970s to expand Seoul south of the Han River, Gangnam has became a coveted address where many of the capital’s wealthy congregate and the best schools are concentrated, an educational disparity likely to ensure that the inequalities symbolized by the neighborhood continue into the next generation.

Psy, raised in the greater Gangnam area in a family running a semiconductor business, now lives north of the river with his wife and twin daughters and said he spends little time thinking about the place.

As for the chase of global fame that once drove him nearly mad, he said he’s made his peace with its absence.

“If another good song comes along and if that thing happens again, great. If not, so be it,” he said. “For now, I’ll do what I do in my rightful place.”

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