If there was anyone who South Korea expected to make it in the United States, Psy was last on the list. If he was ever on it.
In recent years, a phenomenon known as K-Pop (Korean pop) has been spreading over the globe, by people not like Psy. By not like Psy, I mean attractive. And skinny. The K-Pop sect, with exceptions, largely focuses on constructing girl groups and boy bands with “idols” who share the common qualities of possessing ridiculous good looks and dance moves, with svelte, ab-ridden figures well-demonstrated in sparse outfits. These lads and ladies (and their catchy songs, too) have made K-Pop a well-established phenomenon in large parts of Asia, and in recent years, Europe. The Korean music industry has been trying to fan some of these flames in the direction of the United States; not with much success, but not for lack of trying. Among the extensive list of those who have tried to make it in America are BoA, Se7en, Girl’s Generation and Wondergirls, whose unfamiliarity provides a sad testament to their ongoing struggle. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh — they’re all talented people in their own right — but the fact remains that they lie outside mainstream American consciousness.
Ah, the Wondergirls. Ever since Psy struck it big in the states with a single viral video, this girl group has become the butt of a rather sad joke. For they have spent the past few years publically and expensively failing to achieve in the U.S. one tenth of the following that Psy acquired in a matter of weeks and — this makes it much worse — without trying.
Or at least, we can assume that he wasn’t trying. Psy’s a funny guy, and like all genuinely funny people, intelligent. His idea of attaining global rockstardom probably didn’t run along the lines of horsing, literally, around the streets of Gangnam (a district of Seoul renowned for, among other things, its affluence, excellence in education and cutting edge plastic surgery). Nor would it have included gaping at the rear ends of women, dancing with granny under a disco ball and singing under the body gyrations of a mustachioed man in an elevator.
No, this is the guy whose decision to sing “Oppan Gangnam Style” largely rested on his desire to be called “oppa,” an affectionate term (literally meaning “older brother”) largely reserved for young older men by younger women. It’s complicated, but just understand that it’s a term that Korean middle-age men, like Psy, like to hear because they don’t hear it often.
And the song itself is really not so much a social critique of Gangnam as it is a humorous ode to self-deprecation, because Psy simply isn’t Gangnam style. He’s not the affluent, six foot guy with the occasionally manmade “V-line” jaw and the slim nose that is the stereotypical Gangnam inhabitant. He’s not really getting it on with the sexy ladies of Gangnam. He’s just a likeable, tubby lad who sweats profusely in the armpits under strain, a biological phenomenon that he has managed to incorporate into a running gag in his appearances on variety shows. He’s that kind of guy. In a sense, his saying “Oppan Gangnam Style” is like his saying “I’m Hollywood, babe”: The humor comes from a self-observed disparity between himself and the lifestyle that Gangnam represents.
So it was kind of surprising to Korea when this chub — and not the girls with the short shorts — became the first to truly make it into the United States. Surprising, and kind of weird. Support for Psy is now settling down into one of pragmatic concern: Will he able to keep up his momentum in the United States, or will he settle into becoming nothing but a viral sensation, a one hit wonder?
Time will tell. As talented as Psy is, it’s going to be hard to cap a 300-million-times-viewed, Guinness World Record-setting viral video. But he’s certainly not going to be a one-hit wonder, because he isn’t one. He’s already released a string of hit songs that made this singer a household figure in Korea long time before Gangnam Style. My personal favorite is “Champion,” an instantly catchy song with an addictive, disco-frenzy beat in which Psy champions singing and dancing and just going psycho, like his namesake. Another Psy hit is, literally translated, “I completely became a bird,” loosely meaning “I got canned.”
And yes, he imitates a bird. By lifting one leg, spreading his arm wide and cocking the elbows at 90-degree angles to fully embody bird-dom. Because he’s awesome.
I suppose that’s the moral of Psy’s success: That awesomeness doesn’t have a language barrier. Nor looks.