Monthly Archives: September 2012

PSY: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE (CONCLUSION)

During Psy’s “Rock Phase” in between his military stints in 2006, he offered up two indelible numbers that are now regular staples in his concerts.

The first is usually translated as “Entertainer”, but is also given alternate translations like “Celebrity” and “Artist”.  But whatever the case, it is a highly melodic, arena-ready anthemic number that is reminiscent of Robbie Williams’s 1998 hit (and his own concert staple) “Let Me Entertain You” [NOTE:  Robbie Williams was reportedly among the first celebrities who tweeted his praises for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video–wonder if he’s aware of this song and is flattered by it, that’s why he gave such compliments?], and if you listen closely, he also paraphrased the “hip-hop-hippity-hop” phrase of that pioneering rap classic “Rapper’s Delight” from the Sugarhill Gang.  The song is reportedly addressed to Psy’s wife, about how even if he’s imperfect, he’ll be her entertainer and celebrity and do his very best for her.  The music video is a cute and amusing treat where Psy plays both an angel and an everyman character that evokes the Jim Carrey smash hit film, Bruce Almighty.

The other song is “Father”.  Though it doesn’t seem to be released as a single (I don’t see it listed in his discography), it is also another staple in Psy’s concerts.  It’s a loving, moving tribute to self-sacrificing fathers everywhere, that even for listeners whose fathers may not be exactly as described in the song would get misty-eyed.  The animated music video is so crystal clear and straightforward that you don’t really need a translation to understand what the song is about.  I could declare that this is my prime candidate for a modern-day Father’s Day anthem, the way the late 2Pac’s “Dear Mama” seems to a front-runner for a modern-day hpster’s Mother’s Day theme song.

During the early phases of his career, Psy handled everything independently, but after finally completing his military duties, with the encouragement of his wife he signed with powerhouse Korean entertainment agency YG Entertainment in 2010, home of superstar acts like Big Bang and 2NE1.  With the new signing he again evolved from the rock sound in 2006 to a sleek electro-pop sound.  The launching single after that signing, “Right Now”, seems to be like a prototype that “Gangnam Style” eventually took to astounding heights of fame.  There are even those elements of comedy and wacky dancing.

Another aspect that Korean fans expect from Psy, especially in his concerts, are his dance impersonations of female entertainers, and he normally will assume alter-egos, usually combining the element “Ssa-” (as in Korean, his stage name is actually spelled out as “Ssa-I”) with the lady’s name.  In his 2011 summer concert, he impersonated Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”, assuming the alter-egos of Lady SsaSsa and Ssayonce respectively.  In this year’s concert, he mimicked Korean girl group Sistar’s sensual disco-tinged hit “Alone” (not to be confused with Heart’s 1987 smash) and repeated the Lady Ssassa number, this time with firework bras (he should’ve changed the Lady Gaga song to “Bad Romance”, because the flaming bras were of that era, but that’s just a minor quibble).  Enjoy the laugh-riot-worthy and mind-blowing performances below:

Despite the “novelty” factor of “Gangnam Style”, examining Psy’s oeuvre should make one realize that this guy actually has the qualities to go beyond being a one-hit wonder, that perhaps he can escape the fate the befell other artists with smash non-English recordings (a whole slew of them, from Soeur Sourire’s “Dominique”, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” [should’ve been better known as “Ue O Muite Aruko”], and Los del Rio’s “Macarena”) and perhaps maintain a sustained profile in the international stage.  He has demonstrated that he’s a consummate artist and entertainer from all the numbers I have featured in this essay, and he actually could speak English well especially since he went to college in Boston University and Berklee College of Music (maybe would probably need a little help creating fluid rhymes in English, but that could be a manageable challenge).  In fact, he can even turn into the one who can finally break the barrier and help other fellow Korean artists finally make serious inroads in the American market–since he belongs to the same agency he can collaborate in recordings by 2NE1 and perhaps Big Bang to help them forge their US breakthroughs.  He can also guest in recordings by other US/European artists, like the way Pitbull does.  Though “Gangnam Style” already exceeds everyone’s expectations, Psy seems capable of capitalizing on the breakthrough to go to even greater artistic and commercial heights.  It will be interesting where he goes from here–all I’ll probably wish is that Psy remains true to who he is as an artist and entertainer, to remain committed to his art without taking himself too seriously.

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

PSY – MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE (PART 2)

It is now common knowledge that Psy is no overnight sensation, that back in South Korea he is considered an established, albeit unconventional, artist who debuted 11 years ago.  It is not merely his appearance that made him different from the typical K-Pop mold–how his career managed to thrive despite controversies that are in direct opposition to conservative Korean society is an interesting tale in itself.  One almost-career-ending controversy came in late 2001, he was arrested for marijuana possession and was fined 5 million won.  The second was the discovery that he was not able to properly complete his 2003-2005 obligatory military duty, forcing him to render a second compulsory tour of duty from 2007-2009.  For most K-Pop stars, being embroiled in any one of the above controversies would result in the end of that career, but Psy managed to soldier on and become a bigger star afterwards.  To most Westerners, these indiscretions may be considered rather minor and ultimately not noteworthy, but then again, sometimes a bad rap could actually enhance a musician’s reputation–just ask the likes of Snoop Dogg, for instance.

After perusing through key earlier songs of his, I have observed that he started like most hip-hop acts by sampling other people’s songs, then evolving to interpolating those familiar songs, until eventually going original.  Not totally original–many of his later popular ditties actually are derived from other Western hits, as we would all see, but the melodies are different enough that no one would accuse him of plagiarizing.  Even if the later, greater stuff are derivative of other material, there is a brilliance and art to coming up with something fresh from something that might have been familiar.  I mean, isn’t the majority of the biggest K-Pop hits derived from trends in US and European pop music?

He first broke out in his country in 2001 with the hip-hop ditty “Bird”, which samples the opening guitar lick from the recording of Bananarama’s “Venus” fused with the groove from Young MC’s “Bust A Move”.  I have not found a translation of this song, but I heard that lines are loaded with Korean slang that a direct translation may be considered incomprehensible without further explanation.

Anyway, he garnered notoriety for his first and second album, as they are considered “inappropriate” for the Korean youth.  With the sampling of women’s moans on this debut single, I can imagine why they could be shocking to conservatives out there (though in later live concert performances, the moans are gone, and yes, now even if the “Venus” groove is still the foundation, the samples are no longer used–it is now performed live in a bit of a hard-rock vein in concert).

His next major hit is “Champion” in 2002, a cheer song for the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by his country and Japan.  Yes, he uses Harold Faltermeyer’s 1985 hit instrumental theme from Beverly Hills Cop, “Axel F”, as the basis for this song, but this time it’s an interpolation as the instruments are live approximations instead of sampling the recording.  It’s a catchy reinterpretation of the song–though for ignorant English speakers, they might assume that he’s using the “nigga” epithet as that is frequently heard in the song; remember though that he’s rapping in Korean, and “ni ga” is a form of the pronoun “you” and this is actually a positively uplifting song stressing that “you can be a champion”.  The wrong interpretation of the lyrics reminds me of those silly lyric interpretations of Bollywood numbers (termed “Buffalax” after a YouTube user by that handle) like a video of Miss Universe 1994 Sushmita Sen miming to the “Nipple Song” (actual title: “Dilbar, Dilbar” which mean “Lover, Lover” and actually a song beckoning a man to become her lover).

Another major thing that could be observed is that Psy always has great dance moves even then, as evident by this video.  Considering his built, he reminds me of the leads of all incarnations of Hairspray (John Waters film, Broadway musical, and film based on Broadway musical), how they possess tremendous dance abilities that bely their physical frames.

Stars from all three incarnations of Hairspray (from L-R): Ricki Lake, Marissa Janet Winokur, and Nikki Blonsky (image sourced from last.fm).

Psy seems to make a career of creating “cheer” songs dedicated to the Korean World Cup team and the Olympic team.  After his first military stint, he launched a new, fresh, rock sound in 2006 with the World Cup cheer song “We Are The One”.  In unique PSY fashion, the high concept video accompanying the song features PSY as two characters, one a North Korean soldier who impersonates him in the South after the real artist was kidnapped and transported to the North, ostensibly so he can help shore up the fortunes of that football team (especially since South Korea had a very successful Top Four placement in the previous World Cup).  It paid homage to two recent, highly regarded South Korean films, Shiri (1999) and Oldboy (2003).  The song’s theme actually also runs deeper as besides serving as a cheer for the Korean team, it also expresses sentiment about one day the North and South would be reunited.

Psy missed out on coming up with an Olympic cheer theme for 2004 and 2008 as he was busy with military duty at the time.  Finally he got the opportunity with the song “Korea” for the 2012 Olympics.  This is a rollicking, rallying number that recalls Stevie Wonders’ classic hit “Higher Ground” (by way of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover version) and Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll, Part 2”, with sections of the legendary Korean folk song “Arirang” added towards the song’s end.

There are more gems from this artist I would like to highlight, and in my last section, i will also add my take on how Psy can go beyond one-hit wonder status internationally.

PSY – MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE (PART 1)

Unless you’re living under a rock, you are probably aware of the global phenomenon that is the “Gangnam Style” video, by South Korean rapper Psy.  With its colorful visuals and most especially its “horse-riding” dance, it transcended barriers and entertained a multitude of different cultures–no need to be a fan of K-Pop or know the Korean language to appreciate this phenomenon (though it enhances the experience if you happen to be one or the other).

But as entertaining as the video was, I was initially dismissive of the song as a silly novelty ditty and that it is as shallow as, say, LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”–I don’t have anything against catchy, shallow songs, mind you, as we all sometimes need to check our brains at the door and just have fun.

I read on and of course learned that Gangnam referred to an affluent district in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and reading the translation of the lyrics, it made me recall another novelty rapper in my shores, Andrew E, and his ode to “Alabang Girls” (Alabang is usually considered a relatively affluent district in the city of Muntinlupa, in the southern part of Metro Manila).  Andrew E’s ditty was released back in 1992, a whopping 20 years before this phenomenon.

But unlike the Andrew E song, “Gangnam Style” (both song and video) is actually more of a satire of the affluent lifestyle, especially the nouveau riche.  A lot of writers have already interpreted the video’s meaning so I won’t bother elaborating them here anymore.

I monitor the Billboard Korea K-Pop charts and I was surprised to see other tracks from Psy’s latest EP (Psy’s Best 6th Part 1) having relatively long legs in the charts, with a couple of songs other than “Gangnam Style” lingering in the Top 10 for more than 6 weeks (most of the time  other album tracks from a major star would hit then would immediately plummet down the charts the following week).  It made me intrigued to listen to what they actually sound like–and boy was I majorly surprised!  I got to listen to four of the six tracks (including “Gangnam Style”) expecting variations of the hit single, but instead the collection featured an eclectic range of musical styles executed with exquisite songcraft; they are arguably deeper than what “Gangnam Style” would lead you to believe and revealed that Psy has significant depth and range as an artist.  They hold up with the best and catchiest K-Pop songs out there.

Let’s start with the album opener, which is either translated as “Blue Frog” or “Tree Frog”, a collaboration with G-Dragon from the popular boy band Big Bang.  It’s a hard-driving fusion of hard rock, groovy funk, and electro-dance with lyrics that shares the same sentiments as Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, but with a defiant twist.  The chorus rhytmically evoked Lady Gaga’s song, but cleverly the melody is different that no one can accuse Psy of plagiarism (unlike the way Lady Gaga “borrowed” the melody of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” for her song).  I’m embedding a clip that shows English translation and Korean lyrics (plus Vietnamese translation) to help you appreciate the meaning and sing along, too.

Artwork for the “Tree Frog / Blue Frog”

The second track of the EP is usually translated as “Passionate Goodbye”, though the artwork for the track shows “Hot Goodbye”.  This is a collaboration with veteran balladeer Sung Si Kyung, though this is not a ballad but a lush pop/dance track.  The soaring chorus somehow made me recall the British band Steps evoking legendary Swedish band ABBA like in the song “One for Sorrow“.  I have to note Sung Si-Kyung usually has a geeky image as he often sports prescription eyeglasses, but apparently he was in the mood for an “image upgrade” as he guested in Psy’s now-legendary August summer concert sporting dark shades and a suit, as shown in the video embedded below.

Artwork for “Passionate Goodbye”

The last track that I got to listen in full was “What Should Have Been”, a jaunty, sauntering romantic hip-hop ballad about regretting ending a relationship, recorded with Park Jung-Hyun (a.k.a. Lena Park).  It has a melody and hooks that would remain embedded in your head for days.  I  only heard snippets from the original recording, but heard the song in full in his live concert video, this performed with another lady surnamed Park (actually, Psy’s real surname is also Park, by the way)–Park Bom from the superstar girl group 2NE1.  Lena Park’s vocal has a wistful innocence from the snippets I heard, while Park Bom lent a womanly earthiness.  This could be an awesome follow-up single for the US and European markets (as long as they find suitable English lyrics that approximate the flow of the Korean original) and perhaps for the US market they could use Park Bom’s take instead of Lena Park as Americans tend to like their female vocals grittier and earthier instead of soft and ethereal.

Image for “What Should Have Been”

Listening to this sterling collection of tracks made me want to discover Psy’s earlier work.  And there are more gems to be unearthed, as it turns out.  In the next and last sections of this three-part essay, I will highlight more of Psy’s “gems”…