SEOUL — He might not look it, in a smart double-breasted suit and secure hairstyle with enough hair gel to mirror the ceiling lights, but the 45-year-old music director shares a secret as he rubbing his temples: he has a hangover.
But he doesn’t mind nursing that headache, well past 2 p.m. on a Thursday in Seoul. Some of his best songwriting ideas come to him, he says, in the discomfort following a night of heavy drinking.
The man doing the creative suffering is Psy, the former global internet sensation whose viral 2012 music video and one-song earworm, “Gangnam Style,” became the first-ever YouTube offering to top. the billion views and made the world gallop with him. .
The outlandish yet irresistibly catchy song and accompanying video – in which Psy does the song’s signature horse-dancing move in and around Seoul’s upscale Gangnam neighborhood – garnered groundbreaking global acclaim that had mostly eluded to Korean pop groups, or K-pop, before then.
The video, which now has some 4.6 billion views, was so culturally ubiquitous in 2012 that Barack Obama was asked about it on Election Day. NASA astronauts recorded a parody and a North Korean state propaganda site brought up the dance move to mock a South Korean politician.
But for several years following all his viral fame, Psy said, the song’s success haunted him. Even though he was thrust into a Hollywood existence overnight, being chased around New York by paparazzi, signing with Justin Bieber’s manager and releasing a single with Snoop Dogg, he felt internally the pressure mounting for a another success.
“Let’s just do one more,” he said, repeating to himself.
He moved to Los Angeles in a bid to seriously launch a global career, an ocean away from his native South Korea, where he was both a staple of the music charts and a source of comedic relief on silly TV variety shows. . But none of the attempts have succeeded in replicating the formula that made “Gangnam Style” a global hit.
Psi 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, were studying what about the melody, the lyrics, the video, the dance or the man who had propelled the song to such singular levels of 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, extending from the East and Southeast Asian markets to permeate all corners of the world.
Artists like BTS and Blackpink command tens of millions of devoted fans, and the groups have an economic impact that rivals the GDP of a small country. The fervor has spread beyond music into politics, education and even Broadway.
Some say Psy deserves a lot of the credit.
“Psy single-handedly put 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 wave of interest and commercial success that subsequent South Korean stars have enjoyed, Kim said.
Now, 10 years after his whirlwind moment in a bottle, Psy, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, is back in South Korea, where he’s established his own music label and management company and is trying to recreate the magic with the next generation of K-pop talent as one of the industry’s trend setters.
“One of the things I love most about this job is that it’s unpredictable. We say among ourselves that we are in the ‘lid business’ – because you don’t know what you have until you open it,” Psy said in an interview at the offices of his music label. headquartered in – where else? — the Gangnam district in Seoul. “You don’t know which cloud will bring the rain.”
With 10 artists under his wing, including a new six-member band, TNX, Psy says he feels a lot more pressure to shape and manage other people’s careers than when he was solely responsible for his own.
And while he can give his budding stars advice based on decades of industry experience, what he can’t do is offer them foolproof instructions for making a hit record.
For all the years he has spent thinking and talking about “Gangnam Style,” he remains 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 are performed by the same person. Everything is the same, but what was so special about this song? said Psi. “I still don’t know, to this day.”
Overall, 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, blazing a trail that differed from many of his fellow performers, in that he didn’t rely on a boost from his physical appearance or shyness. far from courting controversy.
He never had the chiseled look sought after in the South Korean pop music industry, and since the release of his debut album in 2001, he has become famous for his direct, profane and sometimes ribald lyrics. “I Love Sex” was one of the tracks from her debut album, “Psy from the Psycho World!” which was slapped with a ban on sales to minors at the request of the country’s Christian Ethics Movement.
Despite — or perhaps because of — his iconoclastic and unapologetic ways, over the past two decades at home in South Korea, the college dropout has consistently charted tops, best-selling albums and gigs. sold out.
“It’s kind of ironic that he’s become so iconic – he’s gone from being censored occasionally to being widely celebrated,” said Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based creative services agency that provides marketing solutions. and distribution to Korean music artists and their labels. . “He gave an irreverent nod to going from K-pop bad boy to K-pop golden boy.”
For a pop song, “Gangnam Style” also triggered an avalanche of deep reflections and analyzes on the different aspects of South Korea and Seoul, it was said to be pamphlet: the hypocrisy of the new rich, the superficiality of its social norms and the inequality illustrated by the opulent neighborhood of Gangnam.
Psy insists the song was never intended to deliver deep social commentary – it was just looking to give people a few minutes of mindless hilarity and a break from reality.
On the contrary, he said, he was laughing at himself, because it did not aesthetically fit the bill of a posh local in Gangnam.
“It’s funny because someone who doesn’t look ‘Gangnam style’ says they are,” he said.
Initially targeted for development in the 1970s to expand Seoul south of the Han River, Gangnam has become a coveted address where many of the capital’s wealthy and top schools are concentrated, an educational disparity likely to perpetuate the inequalities symbolized by the neighborhood. in the next generation.
In the years since Psy made Gangnam a globally recognized, if often mispronounced, proper name (“Gang” sounds closest to the latter half of Hong Kong; “nam” like Vietnam), the neighborhood has become increasingly inaccessible to the middle South. Korean. Nowhere else have real estate prices risen as sharply as in the Gangnam region.
“If you say you live in Gangnam, people look at you differently,” said Jin Hee-seon, a former vice mayor of Seoul and a professor of urban planning at Yonsei University. “It is an object of desire and envy.”
Psy, raised in the greater Gangnam area in a family running a semiconductor company, 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 are his signature live performances.
His concerts are legendary in South Korea for a boisterous good mood. His music – loud and energetic – is often accompanied by equally outrageous dance moves, requiring 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 find his joints and limbs as agile as ever in middle age.
In his latest album released last April, his ninth, he collaborated with BTS rapper Suga on a single titled “That That”. In the music video, Suga comically confronts — and kills — the shrink in the blue tuxedo from the 2012 video. (That video racked up 369 million views.)
As for the pursuit of world fame that once drove him almost mad, he says he has made peace with his absence.
“If another good song comes along and it happens again, great. If not, so be it,” he said. “For now, I will do what I do for me.”