This is the first article in a series that explores the driving forces behind hallyu and the global rise of Korean pop culture. -- Ed.
The global success of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video was both boon and bane to the 42-year-old singer, born Park Jae-sang.
With the strong support of K-pop stronghold YG Entertainment, Psy was able to reach an unprecedented audience for Korean music. The video rapidly went viral, going on to reach over 2.5 billion views on YouTube. With an additional push from American manager Scooter Braun, Psy appeared on U.S. pop culture mainstays including the MTV Video Music Awards, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and NBC’s “Today.”
|Promotional image for Psy‘s “Gentleman“ (YG Entertainment)|
However, on the darker side, Psy had to decide how he would channel this newfound success. Should he try to continue his global momentum, perhaps with an English-language album -- Psy speaks English, thanks to his time at the Berklee School of Music -- or continue with his music unaffected by “Gangnam Style.” It became a nagging question, particularly after the comparatively modest successes of follow-up tracks “Gentleman” and “Hangover.”
The decision was not an easy, or quick, one to make.
“It’s been two years and eight months -- ‘Hangover’ was not released in Korea, so -- since ‘Gentleman,’ and three years, five months since my sixth album,” Psy told reporters at a press conference held Nov. 30 for the release of his long-awaited seventh album “Chil-jip Psy-da.”
“There was pressure, and stress. As I was writing, I kept thinking that it wouldn’t be as good as ‘Gangnam,’ or that listeners overseas would not be able to understand the song. With every line and verse, I had voices fighting in my head. It took a while to sort all that out.”
Psy said he wanted to escape the influence of “Gangnam Style” in his new music, which was why he took such a long break, and skipped straight to his seventh studio-length album despite the album “Gangnam Style” having been titled “Part 1.”
With his seventh album, Psy came out with two lead tracks -- “Daddy,” a fast dance track with a catchy hook featuring the voice of fellow YG idol star CL of 2NE1, and “Napal Baji,” a retro disco dance song. As soon as the album came out, both songs hit the top of charts in Korea, with the American-pop-influenced “Daddy” remaining in the top slot a bit longer than “Napal Baji.” The music video for “Daddy” has already surpassed 100 million views on YouTube.
“I wanted to air out the traces of the ‘Gangnam Style’ album. ... I wanted to do something different,” he said. For Korean listeners, this was a natural change; Psy acknowledged that many Korean listeners had described his music as having become “too foreign” and wanted him to return to his older style.
Psy debuted in 2001 with the album “Psy from the Psycho World” and the lead track “Bird” caused an uproar in the K-pop scene, which was even more heavily dominated by idol groups then than today. Everything about Psy’s performance was unexpected. He did not look like a pop star, he did not dance like a pop star and his music certainly was not pop. “Bird” was a rap song filled with serrated lyrics directed toward a flighty woman, holding back no punches while stopping short of filling it with censorship-worthy curse words. The novelty of Psy’s music -- catchy yet comedic, outrageous yet relatable -- immediately made him an icon of an artist who does things differently in every way.
After “Bird,” Psy continued his momentum with party anthems like “Champion” and “Entertainer,” while maintaining diversity in his music through other tracks on his albums. His lyrics were at times comical and outrageous, but also thoughtful, emotional, and philosophical at others.
Although they are lesser known, Psy’s discography includes ballads, medium-tempo rhythm and blues and rap blends, hip-hop, pop and rap. Because of the strong impression he makes through his live performances, particularly his dance tracks, Psy is acknowledged less for his talent in making music, which, according to him, was his original focus.
“Becoming a singer was never my dream,” he said. “I just had a song that I had written and didn’t want to go waste, so I made my debut. Here I am 15 years later.” Psy continued to write for other artists after his debut, creating songs for Lee Seung-gi, Seo In-young, Ivy, DJ DOC, Kim Jang-hoon and others.
Psy said that his image had branded him a certain type of artist despite his original intentions.
“People say that I have a B-rate, minor kind of style, but I did not intend or ask for that,” he said.
“Since ‘Bird,’ I have considered myself A-rate, high-end, and I did my best. But because of my appearance, my dancing, my body, I was labeled B-rate even though I said A-rate, as minor although I said mainstream,” he said.
Psy’s seventh album was a return to that focus on music of all kinds, with featured artists including dance artists like CL and will.i.am, but also folk singer Jeon In-kwon and urban R&B artist Zion.T.
“I don’t know what going back to my original mindset would look like,” he said when prompted by reporters about whether his seventh album would be a return to his old ways. “I became an entertainer because I wanted to do what I was passionate about. ... I’ll accept all the different opinions about my work with humility, but also continue to do what I want, and accept the results as they come.”
Psy’s 15-year career has been speckled with big events -- he got married, had children and, most infamously, did his military service twice to serve a total of five years, beyond the mandatory two years. After serving three years as a civil servant in lieu of going to the Army, Psy was found guilty of dereliction of duty and was redrafted into the Army. The subject of celebrities receiving special treatment in the military is a touchy one in Korea, and the incident left Psy’s image tarnished. His fifth album, “PSYFIVE,” had respectable results, but it was “Gangnam Style” that brought him back to his former glory.
“It’s amazing to think all those things happened during one lifetime,” Psy said. “That someone who went to the military twice could end up dancing with Madonna.”
Won Ho-jung firstname.lastname@example.org
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