Saturday, October 06, 2012

AAK! Music: Gangnam Style by PSY

Now that the Korean got the obligatory Gangnam Style post over with, let's milk it for what it's worth. Here it is -- your definitive guide for PSY and Gangnam Style.

PSY [싸이]

Years of Activity:  2000-2012

Discography
Psy from the Psycho World? (2000)
Ssa2 [싸2] (2002) (pronounced "Psy")
3mai [3마이] (2002) (pronounced "sammai")
Ssazip [싸집] (2006)
PSYFIVE (2010)
PSY6gap: Part I [싸이 6甲: Part 1] (2012)

Representative Song:  Gangnam Style [강남 스타일], from PSY6gap.


강남 스타일
Gangnam Style


오빤 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style
강남스타일
Gangnam Style

낮에는 따사로운 인간적인 여자
A woman who is warm and humane during the day
커피 한잔의 여유를 아는 품격 있는 여자
A dignified woman who knows the leisure of a cup of coffee
밤이 오면 심장이 뜨거워지는 여자
A woman whose heart fires up at night
그런 반전 있는 여자
A woman with a plot twist like that

나는 사나이
I'm a man
낮에는 너만큼 따사로운 그런 사나이
A man who's as warm as you during the day
커피 식기도 전에 원샷 때리는 사나이
A man who takes a shot before the coffee gets cold
밤이 오면 심장이 터져버리는 사나이
A man whose heart bursts at night
그런 사나이
That kind of man

아름다워 사랑스러워 그래 너 hey 그래 바로 너 hey
Beautiful, lovely, yes you, hey, right you, hey
아름다워 사랑스러워 그래 너 hey 그래 바로 너 hey
Beautiful, lovely, yes you, hey, right you, hey
지금부터 갈 데까지 가볼까
How about we go all the way now


오빤 강남스타일, 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style, Gangnam Style
오빤 강남스타일, 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style, Gangnam Style
오빤 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style

Eyyy- Sexy Lady
Eyyy- Sexy Lady
오빤 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style
Eyyy- Sexy Lady
Eyyy- Sexy Lady

정숙해 보이지만 놀 땐 노는 여자
Woman who looks demure but plays when she plays
이때다 싶으면 묶었던 머리 푸는 여자
Woman who lets her hair down at the first chance she gets
가렸지만 웬만한 노출보다 야한 여자
Woman who is covered up but sexier than any exposure
그런 감각적인 여자
A woman who is sensual like that

나는 사나이
I am a man
점잖아 보이지만 놀 땐 노는 사나이
A man who looks gentle but plays when he plays
때가 되면 완전 미쳐버리는 사나이
A man who goes completely crazy at the right time
근육보다 사상이 울퉁불퉁한 사나이
A man whose ideology is bumpier than his muscles
그런 사나이
That kind of man

오빤 강남스타일, 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style, Gangnam Style
오빤 강남스타일, 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style, Gangnam Style
오빤 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style
Eyyy- Sexy Lady
Eyyy- Sexy Lady
오빤 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style
Eyyy- Sexy Lady
Eyyy- Sexy Lady

뛰는 놈 그 위에 나는 놈 baby baby 나는 뭘 좀 아는 놈
Running guy, over him a flying guy, baby baby I'm a guy who knows a thing or two
뛰는 놈 그 위에 나는 놈 baby baby 나는 뭘 좀 아는 놈
Running guy, over him a flying guy, baby baby I'm a guy who knows a thing or two
You know what I’m saying
You know what I’m saying
오빤 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style

Eyyy- Sexy Lady
Eyyy- Sexy Lady
오빤 강남스타일
Oppa is Gangnam Style

In 15 words or less:  flag bearer of the new generation of Korean pop musicians.

So, the Korean, If You Knew This Would Happen, Where Would PSY Fit in the "50 Most Influential" List?  Somewhere between 30 and 35.

Why?  DBSK is ranked 34 purely on the back of their international popularity while having zero musical merit. Safe to say PSY would go a little higher than that. His musical influence is notable but limited, so can't go higher than 30.

Why is PSY important?
At this point, it is probably safe to say PSY will never be separated from Gangnam Style and his infamous horse dance. Of course, given the amazing height of success that PSY achieved with the song and dance, it is also probably safe to say that PSY wouldn't rather have it any other way. But at this point, there is a fair chance that he will be a victim of his own success, relegated to a one-dimensional character -- like a sitcom star whose show was too successful for too long. That would be a pity, because even before the worldwide Gangnam Style craze, PSY occupied an interesting space in Korean pop music history.

PSY -- born Park Jae-sang -- debuted in 2000, which was a major inflection point in Korean pop music history. Prior to late 1990s, popular musicians of Korea could be divided largely into two categories:  the entertainers and the artists. The entertainers were no better than singing clowns, driven to put on a good show to earn the public's adulation and another day's living. The artists were concerned with the quality and message of their music, endeavoring to create something new and meaningful. The two groups of people did not have much in common, and overlapped only infrequently. (When they did overlap, they are remembered as legends of Korean pop music. Shin Joong-hyeon was both an opening act at a USO show and pioneering rock musician. Seo Taiji was both a leader of a boy band and introducer of hiphop to Korea.)

But one thing did tie the groups together -- they were both serious people. The threat of poverty and hunger endowed the entertainers with a hardened edge, even if that edge would only be visible off the stage. It was the typical gravity of purpose that drove the artists into seriousness. Much of this was a function of the times they lived in Korea. There is nothing terribly fun about poverty, sweatshops, dictator rule and constant Red Scare -- the conditions that plagued Korea until late 1980s. It was not just Korean artists who were serious; all of Korea was serious.

It is too much to call these artists joyless  -- surely, they must have felt deep-seated satisfaction derived from their life's work. But still, they were serious; more often than not, they didn't seem to be having fun. As Korea became wealthier and freer, that began to change. And PSY was one of the first Korean pop musician to lead the charge.

Korea's emergence as a wealthier, freer country in the 1990s had a massive implication to its pop culture. Simply put, Korean people had money to spend, and they could spend their money on whatever they wanted. Korean pop music's first response to this new reality was rooted in the industrial-era mentality: "let's earn more money by putting out the best cultural product possible." Thus, late 1990s is when the idol group business model was developed. A production company would invest significant capital into beautiful and talented people, grooming them into money-making machines. As we all know, this business model ended up becoming wildly successful within a decade or so. But although the glitter and glamour of Girls' Generation and Big Bang are new and sophisticated, their raison d'etre is an old one. They exist to entertain others, and earn a living by doing so.

But there was a more subtle and under-appreciated development in Korean pop music, in response to the new reality. Being wealthier and freer developed new aesthetics among Korean pop musicians. Because they were no longer desperate to earn a living, this new breed of musicians could simply do what they wanted to do. Of course, they wanted to be rich and famous -- who doesn't? But this new breed of musicians were no longer threatened by abject poverty and hunger, nor were they burdened by a massive historical task that they must address, unlike their predecessors were. Faced with this unprecedented freedom, this new breed of Korean pop musicians decided to do something unprecedented in Korean pop culture history -- they decided to have fun. By doing so, they forged a truly new path in Korean pop culture. The artists will no longer exist for someone else, or something else; they will only exist for themselves, and for their own idiosyncrasy.

PSY's biography is an epitome of such new K-pop musicians. He was born into an upper-middle class family, in -- where else? -- Gangnam, in Seoul. His childhood was quite comfortable. His parents could afford to send him to U.S. to study, first at Boston University, then at Berklee College of Music. He could even manage to get himself illegally assigned to a soft position for his mandatory military service, a privilege generally reserved for the wealthy. (He was caught and had to re-serve his mandatory service, and nearly destroyed his career in the process.) No existential angst burdened him -- even if he failed as a musician, he probably could have made a decent, middle class living doing something else. He did not go through the extremely regimented production company as a youngster. He simply decided to become a musician because he liked music, and he liked putting on a show.

PSY debuted in 2000 with his first album, Psy from the Psycho World?. PSY's music -- electro-pop mixed in with rap -- was itself new and interesting for Korean pop music of early 2000s. But far newer, and far more interesting, was PSY's message. As a pop musician, PSY's central message has always been the same:  "I'm going to have fun, do whatever I want to do, and nobody is going to stop me." Laughing is fun; so is swearing, drinking, sex and partying. Accordingly, PSY constantly engaged in self-satire, crude language, blunt sensationalism and other fun things, both inside and outside of his music. PSY was arrested for smoking marijuana in 2001, a crime that is rare and carries a significantly more serious penalty in Korea. In his massive outdoor concert in Seoul a few days ago, PSY took off his shirt and downed a whole bottle of soju on stage in front of estimated 80,000 people, likely breaking several Seoul city ordinances in the process. PSY's Gangnam Style is simply another manifestation of the same things that PSY has always been doing. He does a ridiculous dance wearing a ridiculous suit. He is surrounded by hot girls and (ahem) appreciates a well-positioned booty. And he manages to work in a subtle satire of his own neighborhood.

PSY's outlandish success -- in which he found international fame without even really trying -- opened up a new era for Korean pop music in the international stage, and not just because PSY is a pudgy, funny man in his mid 30s as opposed to a set of gorgeous and leggy women. The most important difference between PSY and a typical idol group of K-pop is not their looks; it is the reason for their music. Ultimately, idol groups engage in music to entertain others; ultimately, PSY engages in music to entertain himself.

So far, the world has only seen the former type from Korean pop music, but not the latter. This hardly means that the latter group does not exist; unlike what many non-Koreans mistakenly suppose, K-pop is not limited to pretty manufactured puppets. Korea enjoys a vibrant scene of rock, hiphop, new age and indie music, played by musicians who engage in music for the sake of music. Now that PSY captured the world's attention, sooner or later, the world will catch onto the "other" K-pop as well. And when the "other" K-pop stars go international, they will have PSY to thank.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

12 comments:

  1. By far the best write up on PSY so far! Really good points made.

    I dare to add this link as I hope it complements your K-pop series. It's a (no doubt incomplete) chronology of major stars from the late 1980s up to SNSD's Gee.
    http://koreanology.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/emergence-of-k-pop-from-lee-to-gee/

    ReplyDelete
  2. I believe the last sentence is missing 'have' - "... they will [have] PSY to thank". But other than that, this was an interesting post on PSY.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that was intentional word play.

      Delete
    2. Thanks! Correction made.

      Delete
  3. I'm a mom with a teen daughter that is kpop crazy. There were one or two bands that I liked (Block B and B.A.P.) but I couldn't really get into the massive production machine that is kpop today. Until Gangnam Style. I loved that he wasn't some adolescent boy with chocolate abs and amazing hair. It was clear he had that kind of self confidence and he was having fun and I respect that about him. I'm glad that he is having such worldwide success because he certainly has been working at it for a long time. He is an amazing showman and someday I hope to see him live because it looks to be an amazing experience!

    I don't think, however, that in the US at least, he will see the same response to his other music. I was a young music fan in the 80's when we saw many foreign bands briefly break into the US market with one hit wonders like "Rock Me Amadeus" and "99 Luftballoons". They were anomalies. I think the US is rather xenophobic when it comes to many things. I believe Gangnam Style visually may play on many stereotypes Americans have of Asians making it something where the American viewer feels comfortable laughing at him as he laughs at himself. Which is really too bad.

    I've come to respect how hard these idols work for their success. I happily watch the idol shows on the weekends and am even travelling 8 hours to attend KCON now.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I currently live in Japan and have a lot of friends - both in Europe and Japan - who are crazy about (idol) K-Pop.
    Really good points were made in this article and I too hope, that someday K-Music from the "other side" will make its way out of Korea.

    However, what interests me most is, that Gangnam Style virtually seems to be ignored in Japan - a country, where all those idol groups like SNSD, Big Band or 2ne1 are having a huge success. I wonder why that is?

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  5. Video was just on Mtv. My daughter called me in , "is this the Korean video". She was amused of course. I keep telling my kids, Koreans are funny. Music in America has gotten just as formulaic as any. It's a fun video, and when you stop worrying about what it means, that's all that matters anyway, right? Someone who is relatively fluent in English, with friends in the US, should take advantage of this opportunity right away. The US has almost 2 million people of Korean descent. Korean entertainment is popular all over Asia, so there is no reason you couldn't expect the appetite and buying power of another 15 million or so. If anything, Koreans are shrewd capitalists so I can't believe hand phones haven't been worn out by now.

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  6. "Being wealthier and freer developed new aesthetics among Korean pop musicians."

    I think they just copied/grafted Western pop music.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Another correction - 'infamous' should be 'famous'.

    Good article!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Im lazy to send an email to ask a question, sorry, so here goes: "..her parents did not attend her funeral, as it is customary in Korea for the parents not to attend the funeral of an unmarried child."

    Really? What, why? (._.)

    & How about making a formspring, where people can ask you questions and post the replies here?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Colbert has gone Gangnam style!
    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/421325/november-15-2012/millennial-generation-soup-campaign

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  10. I think you're off on Big Bang. That's a group that's obsessed with its own internal dysfunction:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTsnBHXnAvI

    Big Bang captured their fanbase by building up an internal world in their music and videos. Even the populist pop stuff they churned out after 2009 in a desperate attempt to retain their place at the top of the charts actually, under the surface, very specific and weird. I think they exist uncomfortably somewhere between artists and entertainers. (GDragon & Taeyang famously did not want to debut as idols in the first place.)

    Apart from that I really enjoyed this post a lot. I agree with tasogare82 above, no one else has explained PSY vs. the idols as well as you do in this post, so far.

    ReplyDelete

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