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.
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.