Despite the record-shattering success of “Gangnam Style,” the most fascinating pop phenomenon of the year sputtered in its attempt to dazzle the U.S.
One year ago, Y.G. Entertainment, now South Korea’s most successful incubator and purveyor of pop music, celebrated its 15th birthday with three “Family Concerts” in three nights at the Olympic Gymnastic Arena in southeastern Seoul; the four-hour blowouts showcased the company’s top artists since its founding in 1996. Outside, in the cold December air, fans posed in front of the Y.G. official portrait, a blown-up, black-and-white, relatively demure press photo that arranged the agency’s many younger stars — Bigbang, 2NE1, Se7en, Tablo — side-by-side with founder Yang Hyun-suk. But in the very back, almost as if he was hiding, stood an industry veteran who’d just joined the fold.
“Who is that?” I asked the Y.G. publicist before the show. “Oh, that’s PSY,” she said, with a dismissive giggle. “Short for ‘Psycho.’ He’s really crazy and really funny, but his sense of humor is very Korean. You’ll see. It may be a little difficult for you to understand.”
At no point during my ten days in Seoul would any other character in the K-pop kingdom be described as “funny”; though more aggressive and eccentric than its Western counterpart in both sight and sound, K-pop is nothing if not serious. But inside the arena, the few times PSY (real name: Park Jae-sang) took the stage — in a sequined tuxedo or lamb’s-fleece tunic — the screaming often was supplanted by laughter. While just as elastic as his peers, he was much older and softer around the waist, his body more like a prop than a marvel of training. He handled his microphone like a stand-up comic, and he had his own animated, double-chinned avatar flashing on projection screens and the surface of a massive disco ball that dropped from the arena’s ceiling.
PSY was demonstrably unlike anyone else performing that night for Y.G. In fact, the proudly rotund son of Park Won-ho, chairman and controlling shareholder of South Korean semiconductor company D I Corp, received the majority of his musical training at Berklee College of Music in Boston before dropping out and returning home to Seoul to pursue pop stardom. While each Y.G. artist or group seemed clearly modeled after a hugely successful Western pop act (see: 2NE1’s take on TLC, Bigbang’s love of ’N Sync), PSY, much like the inexplicable, psychedelic entirety of “Gangnam Style,” transcended translation. He was fantastic, but he certainly didn’t fit into K-Pop’s global narrative at the time. Almost a year later, due to the single and its clip — evidence that not only are Koreans making the best music videos in the world, but that a near-constant barrage of visual punch lines may be as potent as any hook — PSY is the narrative. He’s both the all-time YouTube king and a pop-culture comet whose success has upended nearly a decade of market research at home.
“The tendency and thinking so far seems to have been that you have to erase Korean identity somehow to achieve success in the U.S. or overseas,” says Kyung Hyun Kim, professor of East Asian Language and Literature at the University of California at Irvine. “But I think that’s been proven wrong with PSY’s success. He’s engaged in satirical humor — that I didn’t know would translate, but apparently it does — and a kind of grotesque body humor, as well, that I always found outrageously funny when I saw him on [Korean] television over the years. I actually didn’t even know he was a musician and a producer and a composer himself because he was just a funny face.”
Take a walk through the subway terminals in the tony Gangnam neighborhood that PSY lampoons in the song and you’ll see as many advertisements for plastic-surgery clinics as you do plastic-surgery scandals in the K-pop tabloid blogosphere. But the premium placed on pretty faces during the “idol” recruiting process and chiseled bodies in the highly streamlined, military-like training systems of most major entertainment companies hasn’t yet translated to mainstream success in the United States as many hoped and forecasted.
Despite sold-out performances on both coasts, a Snoop Dogg cosign, and appearances on both Letterman and LIVE! with Kelly Ripa S.M. Entertainment’s marquee, high-gloss, nine-member girl group, Girls’ Generation, didn’t make any major commercial or cultural inroads. Both veteran boyband Bigbang (featuring G-Dragon, whose fabulous single “Crayon” never caught on here) and the will.i.am-assisted 2NE1 drew equally impressive crowds at arena shows in Southern California and the Tri-State area, but have yet to enter the mainstream vernacular in the same way as their doughier labelmate.
“One of the reasons why ‘Gangnam Style’ worked in Korea,” says Kim, “is he’s so un-Gangnam. Although he originally comes from that neighborhood, the image and reputation that he’s built over the last 15 years are much different. He’s been very popular in the provinces.”
Minutes after the Y.G. Family Concert in December, another Y.G. publicist (also a former Def Jam intern) laughed when I asked about PSY. “He is mostly just known in Korea,” she said, again emphasizing his distinct sense of humor and pointing out the contrast with the international ambitions (and regional success) of Y.G.’s younger acts. “He is just touring here most of the time.” And though he’d been releasing records for more than a decade, it wasn’t until January of this year that PSY finally performed in front of a Japanese crowd, as part of Y.G.’s Family tour. “I’m a famous singer well-known for driving the audience wild in Korea,” read a sign he brought with him onstage. “But here, today, I’m just a little chubby newcomer.”
Even in composition, “Gangnam Style” is a dance-floor number rooted in traditional Korean rhythms, a reason for its initial success at home, Kim says. “It’s a folk song,” he explains, “A perfect line and pattern. Koreans, a lot of times, scratch their heads: ‘Why was that one song not so popular over there, when it’s so big here? Or vice versa?’ This, though, when it first came out in early summer, was already viral. I was getting e-mails from all of my friends in Korea asking me to watch it. My nephews in Korea were doing the dance. And I thought it would be a Korean phenomenon only, because a Korean pop song has never had this kind of success, Koreans are still scratching their heads. Sure, it was popular here, but why this one and not all these other songs that we like?”
While many have suggested that PSY has broken down the door for Korean acts in the United States (much like BoA did for K-pop in Japan ten years ago), nothing is ever quite that simple. In early December, several bloggers pointed to a 2004 performance in which PSY, frustrated by the death of a Korean missionary in Iraq, had joined with local metal group N.E.X.T. for a performance of their anti-American protest song, “Dear American.” And though Korean media outlets had long been aware of the story, its sudden resurrection posed the first serious, potentially disastrous hiccup for PSY since he’s become a Stateside concern. But web-accelerated PR dilemmas aside, industry kingpins in Seoul are facing a dilemma with longer-lasting implications: If a song composed entirely in untranslatable Korean and a video rife with goofy, culturally specific reference points can mutate into a world-conquering colossus, what does that mean for their tightly disciplined approach built on maximum volume, reach, and impact?
“In some ways, I think this is a good intervention,” says Kim. “You can’t just copy Beyoncé or One Direction and expect it to work. JYP (Park Jin-young, founder of one of Y.G.’s main label/management competitors) is probably saying the same thing. He’s been trying to launch global acts for the last ten years and he wasn’t able to do it. For two weeks, he says that he was in the dark and didn’t know that PSY had reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts. And when he found out, he said that he was sorry that he had previously underestimated PSY.”
Below, our Top 20 K-pop singles of 2012 (as selected by David Bevan):
1. G-Dragon – “Crayon”
2. PSY – “Gangnam Style”
3. Miss A – “I Don’t Need A Man”
4. SHINee – “Sherlock”
5. Junsu – “Tarantallegra”
6. 4Minute – “Volume Up”
7. Bigbang – “Bad Boy”
8. f(x) – “Electric Shock”
9. Sistar – “Alone”
10. B.A.P. – “Warrior”
11. 2NE1 – “I Love You”
12. Wonder Girls – “Like This”
13. BigBang – “Fantastic Baby”
14. TTS – “Twinkle”
15. HyunA – “Ice Cream”
16. BIA4 – “Tried To Walk”
17. T-Ara – “Lovey Dovey”
18. Beast – “Beautiful Night”
19. Girls’ Generation – “Paparazzi”
20. Orange Caramel – “Lipstick”
Others: Jay Park – “Know Your Name (Acoustic Version),” BoA – “Only One”
Thank you to@rhai88 for the tips.