It’s hard to believe that a decade ago, a cherubic thirtysomething from South Korea became the biggest pop star in the known universe by rapping in his native tongue and aggressively pretending to ride a horse.
Those who lived through the peak of “Gangnam Style” know there is no hyperbole in claiming that the world hadn’t seen anything quite like the rise of Psy. Internet virality was certainly an established thing by 2012, but nothing had captured the sheer reach of the Korean pop artist.
The song was the first to break the 1 billion view landmark on YouTube, and its success made Billboard literally change its charting formula to include views from the platform, shifting the way pop music is tracked. Even today, with that billion-view goal now surpassed by a number of artists, “Gangnam Style” remains the 11th most viewed video ever. Metrics aside, the electro tune was the rare hit that bloomed into a legit global phenomenon, influencing pop culture in seemingly every continent. Psy was so big that he was invited to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to discuss the role of music in world peace.
In 2022, Korean culture is everywhere in the American zeitgeist, thanks to the blowup of artists like BTS and Blackpink, interest in the flavors of Korean cuisine, and TV shows like the Netflix smash hits Crash Landing on You and Singles Inferno. And while there are many other reasons why this cultural shift has taken hold in recent years, there’s little doubt in my mind that Psy played an indelible role in laying a foundation a decade ago.
With Psy announcing that he’s dropping a new album on April 29th after a five-year hiatus, it’s worth looking back and appreciating what “Gangnam Style” gave us.
“Gangnam Style” is, at its core, a send-up of the wealth and classism at the heart of Gangnam, a prestigious district in Seoul that Psy has said is analogous to Beverly Hills. Its lyrics follow a male narrator who obsesses over the thought of a classy girl who lets loose at night — and is trying to woo such a woman by claiming he, too, is well-heeled and down for anything.
Psy wrote the song as a parody of the various posers and ostentatious tryhards who claim to be “Gangnam style,” which is ironic given that he himself grew up in Gangnam as the son of a wealthy family. Maybe that’s what made him so keen to critique the norms and hypocrisies of Korea’s wannabe bourgeoise in the first place; either way, jabbing at the flaws of Korean society has become a key part of his message, in “Gangnam Style” and beyond.
Known as a class clown through high school, Psy, aka Park Jae-Sang, moved to the U.S. at 18 for college, with plans to ultimately take over his father’s tech manufacturing business after receiving his degree. Instead, he got bored, ditched class and learned how to rap by inhaling records by Tupac, Eminem and Dr. Dre. He released his debut album in 2001, which satirizes issues of social class, misbehavior and sexuality with a crass, adolescent spirit. It caught fire with Korea’s twentysomethings at the turn of the millennium, who were electrified by Psy’s blunt commentary and dirty lyrics. Those same elements infuriated various elements within Korea’s conservative culture at the time, leading civics groups to denounce Psy’s music and lobby to ban record sales.
Psy features many of those same themes in “Gangnam Style,” especially in the music video’s absurd antics, which makes it the fitting crown of a career that’s been more interesting than it gets credit for. It’s not fair to credit him with the K-pop revolution, which was built on the backs of a number of pioneering artists like BoA, Rain, Girl’s Generation and Big Bang that forayed into the U.S. market. Instead, he had a superstar moment unlike many others, propelling Koreanness into the mainstream and invading dorm-room parties, radio airwaves, bars, malls and every other kind of venue you can think of.
Korea always needed voices like Psy’s to help push the counterculture. But as it turns out, the world wanted him, too — and in 2012, the stars aligned in a way we haven’t seen again since.