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.
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.
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.
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”…