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Seoul, South Korea

Gangnam Style by PSY

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Oppa Gangnam style! Read full Lyrics
Psy, c 2013
(thanks, Eva Rinaldi)
In the second half of 2012, an unknown musician took the world by storm with the help of a cleverly crafted YouTube video (that happens to also be ridiculous and funny as hell). There isn’t a single man, woman, or child on the face of Earth who hasn’t heard "Gangnam Style," the catchy dance song by the Korean Pop artist who calls himself PSY.

Elvis may have been the King. Michael Jackson may have been the King of Pop. PSY is the King of YouTube. Since its first posting, the music video for "Gangnam Style" has almost two billion views. It was the first video to reach one billion and remains the single, most-watched video on YouTube and the Internet. To understand its mass appeal and mainstream popularity, you must first understand two things: Korean Pop (or K-Pop) and PSY as an artist.

K-Pop, which is nothing more than simply ‘pop’ music, has been around in Korea since the 1950s (likewise, J-Pop is popular music in Japan). If you’re familiar with American pop acts (Britney Spears, N-Sync, Justin Bieber, the Spice Girls, One Direction) then you have a pretty good idea what to expect with K-Pop. There is a single, albeit obvious, difference: K-Pop isn’t sung in English.

Contemporary Asian youth culture, music, television, movies, literature, and art is just one small step behind, and heavily influenced by, that which becomes popular in the US and the UK. K-Pop is no different. The Korean people believe K-Pop is superior to all other varieties of pop and additionally can’t explain why their artists have yet to take over the world. Why don’t teens in America and Europe listen to K-Pop? Well, we have our own.

The first of the modern K-Pop bands to hit it big (in Korea) was back in 1992, following on the footsteps of NKOTB (or New Kids on the Block) here in the United States. Seo Taiji & Boys ushered in a new, modernized paradigm shift in the Asian music industry culminating twenty years later with "Gangnam Style. "

Korean acts are carefully groomed, choreographed, and over-produced and are characterized by crisp, synchronized dance moves, heavily caked makeup, auto-tuned vocals, and very thin, very beautiful singers showing much more skin than the average Korean would be comfortable displaying. This reason, in and of itself, makes PSY’s popularity and seemingly overnight success that much more enigmatic. How was it possible for a 35-year-old, overweight, badly dressed (sometimes cross-dressed) man to achieve that which so many teen and college-age groups failed so often to achieve?
View of Seoul from Namsan
(thanks, Kok Leng Yeo)
Born Park Jae-Sang, PSY was born into an affluent family living in an affluent district in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea; and not just an affluent district… THE affluent district. In a nation with just under fifty million people, the city’s population hovers around twenty-two million and only half a million reside in the southeast area called Gangnam.

Still not sure how to picture it? Imagine Beverly Hills, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Vail, Colorado, Martha’s Vineyard, Maryland’s Eastern Shore, South Beach… got it yet? That’s the style of living in which PSY was raised. Consider the “Real Housewives” and other reality television series about the wealthy Americans. Same thing. Good thing PSY has a self-deprecating sense of humor about his neighborhood and upbringing.

PSY attended Boston University in 1996 where he became more interested in music than his studies. He quickly shifted gears, dropping out of BU and enrolling at Berklee College of Music. He didn’t finish there, either, but his experiences in the States enabled him to return to Korea with his eye fixed on becoming a professional singer and entertainer.

Some have referred to him as the Korean “Weird-Al” [Yankovic] and after watching his music videos, it’s easy to see why. His songs and lyrics often poke fun at himself and a variety of other topics from other Korean celebrities to cultural aspects of Asian life. His debut full-length album Psy from the Psycho World!, in January 2001, was fined by the government for ‘inappropriate content’ (Weird-Al’s music is protected by the Bill of Rights). He often performs his concerts dressed in drag.

Since the beginning of the Gangnam Style phenomenon, other professionals – as well as amateurs – have parodied PSY’s signature dance moves, the most recognizable being the cowboy riding on a horse, swinging a lasso high above his head. Everybody from President Barack Obama to public school kindergartners recreate PSY’s signature moves. The UN Secretary General has even gone so far as to call the dance a “force for world peace.” Overreaction? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
~ Justin Novelli
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