6:45 pm - 12/13/2012


Despite the record-shattering success of "Gangnam Style", the most fascinating pop phenomenon of the year sputtered in its attempt to dazzle the U.S.

One year ago, Y.G. Entertainment, now South Korea's most successful incubator and purveyor of pop music, celebrated its 15th birthday with three "Family Concerts" in three nights at the Olympic Gymnastic Arena in southeastern Seoul; the four-hour blowouts showcased the company’s top artists since its founding in 1996. Outside, in the cold December air, fans posed in front of the Y.G. official portrait, a blown-up, black-and-white, relatively demure press photo that arranged the agency's many younger stars — Bigbang, 2NE1, Se7en, Tablo — side-by-side with founder Yang Hyun-suk. But in the very back, almost as if he was hiding, stood an industry veteran who'd just joined the fold.
"Who is that?" I asked the Y.G. publicist before the show. "Oh, that's PSY," she said, with a dismissive giggle. "Short for 'Psycho.' He's really crazy and really funny, but his sense of humor is very Korean. You'll see. It may be a little difficult for you to understand."

At no point during my ten days in Seoul would any other character in the K-pop kingdom be described as "funny"; though more aggressive and eccentric than its Western counterpart in both sight and sound, K-pop is nothing if not serious. But inside the arena, the few times PSY (real name: Park Jae-sang) took the stage — in a sequined tuxedo or lamb's-fleece tunic — the screaming often was supplanted by laughter. While just as elastic as his peers, he was much older and softer around the waist, his body more like a prop than a marvel of training. He handled his microphone like a stand-up comic, and he had his own animated, double-chinned avatar flashing on projection screens and the surface of a massive disco ball that dropped from the arena's ceiling.

15th Anniversary YG Family / Photo by YG Entertainment Inc.

PSY was demonstrably unlike anyone else performing that night for Y.G. In fact, the proudly rotund son of Park Won-ho, chairman and controlling shareholder of South Korean semiconductor company D I Corp, received the majority of his musical training at Berklee College of Music in Boston before dropping out and returning home to Seoul to pursue pop stardom. While each Y.G. artist or group seemed clearly modeled after a hugely successful Western pop act (see: 2NE1’s take on TLC, Bigbang’s love of ’N Sync), PSY, much like the inexplicable, psychedelic entirety of "Gangnam Style," transcended translation. He was fantastic, but he certainly didn't fit into K-Pop's global narrative at the time. Almost a year later, due to the single and its clip — evidence that not only are Koreans making the best music videos in the world, but that a near-constant barrage of visual punch lines may be as potent as any hook — PSY is the narrative. He’s both the all-time YouTube king and a pop-culture comet whose success has upended nearly a decade of market research at home.

"The tendency and thinking so far seems to have been that you have to erase Korean identity somehow to achieve success in the U.S. or overseas," says Kyung Hyun Kim, professor of East Asian Language and Literature at the University of California at Irvine. "But I think that's been proven wrong with PSY's success. He's engaged in satirical humor — that I didn't know would translate, but apparently it does — and a kind of grotesque body humor, as well, that I always found outrageously funny when I saw him on [Korean] television over the years. I actually didn't even know he was a musician and a producer and a composer himself because he was just a funny face."

Take a walk through the subway terminals in the tony Gangnam neighborhood that PSY lampoons in the song and you'll see as many advertisements for plastic-surgery clinics as you do plastic-surgery scandals in the K-pop tabloid blogosphere. But the premium placed on pretty faces during the "idol" recruiting process and chiseled bodies in the highly streamlined, military-like training systems of most major entertainment companies hasn’t yet translated to mainstream success in the United States as many hoped and forecasted.

Despite sold-out performances on both coasts, a Snoop Dogg cosign, and appearances on both Letterman and LIVE! with Kelly Ripa S.M. Entertainment’s marquee, high-gloss, nine-member girl group, Girls' Generation, didn’t make any major commercial or cultural inroads. Both veteran boyband Bigbang (featuring G-Dragon, whose fabulous single “Crayon” never caught on here) and the will.i.am-assisted 2NE1 drew equally impressive crowds at arena shows in Southern California and the Tri-State area, but have yet to enter the mainstream vernacular in the same way as their doughier labelmate.

"One of the reasons why ‘Gangnam Style’ worked in Korea," says Kim, "is he's so un-Gangnam. Although he originally comes from that neighborhood, the image and reputation that he's built over the last 15 years are much different. He's been very popular in the provinces."

PSY / Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images

Minutes after the Y.G. Family Concert in December, another Y.G. publicist (also a former Def Jam intern) laughed when I asked about PSY. "He is mostly just known in Korea," she said, again emphasizing his distinct sense of humor and pointing out the contrast with the international ambitions (and regional success) of Y.G.'s younger acts. "He is just touring here most of the time." And though he'd been releasing records for more than a decade, it wasn't until January of this year that PSY finally performed in front of a Japanese crowd, as part of Y.G.'s Family tour. "I'm a famous singer well-known for driving the audience wild in Korea," read a sign he brought with him onstage. "But here, today, I’m just a little chubby newcomer."

Even in composition, "Gangnam Style" is a dance-floor number rooted in traditional Korean rhythms, a reason for its initial success at home, Kim says. "It's a folk song," he explains, "A perfect line and pattern. Koreans, a lot of times, scratch their heads: 'Why was that one song not so popular over there, when it's so big here? Or vice versa?' This, though, when it first came out in early summer, was already viral. I was getting e-mails from all of my friends in Korea asking me to watch it. My nephews in Korea were doing the dance. And I thought it would be a Korean phenomenon only, because a Korean pop song has never had this kind of success, Koreans are still scratching their heads. Sure, it was popular here, but why this one and not all these other songs that we like?"

While many have suggested that PSY has broken down the door for Korean acts in the United States (much like BoA did for K-pop in Japan ten years ago), nothing is ever quite that simple. In early December, several bloggers pointed to a 2004 performance in which PSY, frustrated by the death of a Korean missionary in Iraq, had joined with local metal group N.E.X.T. for a performance of their anti-American protest song, "Dear American." And though Korean media outlets had long been aware of the story, its sudden resurrection posed the first serious, potentially disastrous hiccup for PSY since he’s become a Stateside concern. But web-accelerated PR dilemmas aside, industry kingpins in Seoul are facing a dilemma with longer-lasting implications: If a song composed entirely in untranslatable Korean and a video rife with goofy, culturally specific reference points can mutate into a world-conquering colossus, what does that mean for their tightly disciplined approach built on maximum volume, reach, and impact?

"In some ways, I think this is a good intervention," says Kim. "You can't just copy Beyoncé or One Direction and expect it to work. JYP (Park Jin-young, founder of one of Y.G.’s main label/management competitors) is probably saying the same thing. He's been trying to launch global acts for the last ten years and he wasn't able to do it. For two weeks, he says that he was in the dark and didn't know that PSY had reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts. And when he found out, he said that he was sorry that he had previously underestimated PSY."

PSY at Christmas in Washington / Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Below, our Top 20 K-pop singles of 2012 (as selected by David Bevan):

1. G-Dragon - "Crayon"
2. PSY - "Gangnam Style"
3. Miss A - "I Don't Need A Man"
4. SHINee - "Sherlock"
5. Junsu - "Tarantallegra"
6. 4Minute - "Volume Up"
7. Bigbang - "Bad Boy"
8. f(x) - "Electric Shock"
9. Sistar - "Alone"
10. B.A.P. - "Warrior"
11. 2NE1 - "I Love You"
12. Wonder Girls - "Like This"
13. BigBang - "Fantastic Baby"
14. TTS - "Twinkle"
15. HyunA - "Ice Cream"
16. BIA4 - "Tried To Walk"
17. T-Ara - "Lovey Dovey"
18. Beast - "Beautiful Night"
19. Girls' Generation - "Mr. Taxi"
20. Orange Caramel - "Lipstick"

Others: Jay Park - "Know Your Name (Acoustic Version)," BoA - "Only One"

Source: spin 1, 2, 3
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asnindie 13th-Dec-2012 06:49 pm (UTC)
No matter what people think, GS has been a huge breakthrough for Kpop, it won't last and will probably be immortalised as a one hit wonder but who cares. PSY's done well without trying to and gotten one of the biggest World wide hits of the year, that's big. It shows that Kpop has potential.

Post GS Kpop is a strange place though, he's not an idol, he's not what the average Intl Stan even enjoys so in reality he's the opposite of what most fans think what Kpop should be represented as to the West. The so called "Kpop is real bizz, PSY is ruining it" fans, the same who trashed Hyuna for spreading a cheap image of Kpop during the Bubble Pop time. So yeah Psy has broken down a door but not the door people want, not the one Kpop fans want either. I don't know where we go from here. To cheap PSY knock offs intl stans won't like or to Idol groups who are struggling in Korea but seem to be what Korea is exporting.

Also Crayon as no 1 song of the year, nope.

Edited at 2012-12-13 06:51 pm (UTC)
pepper 13th-Dec-2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
IA. K-pop will never be relevant to the west unless they break that stupid "srs business/trying too hard to be sexy" image most of them have imo.

And those people who keep slut-shaming Hyuna need to sit down. They're just a bunch of hypocrites who criticise girls for being/dressing sexy but spazz whenever their oppas rip their shirts or flash their abs. UGH. Double standards much? :|
hipployta 13th-Dec-2012 06:51 pm (UTC)
This ENTIRE article is invalid the moment they said Big Bang takes after NSync...WTF?

Though the top 20 list isn't bad SNSD's Japanese version of Mr. Taxi is WAY superior than the Korean version on and they just put anything from Hyuna on these lists I swear.

The Chinese version of I Don't Need A Man is way better than the Korean version too surprisingly...it flows so well

Edited at 2012-12-13 06:53 pm (UTC)
benihime99 13th-Dec-2012 06:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah that had me go "WTF" too.
I could understand some B2K comparaison at the begining (maybe) but NSync... that has to be a joke
lysblack 13th-Dec-2012 07:04 pm (UTC)
i'm here just to shake and cry over the miss a love.
setsuna16 13th-Dec-2012 07:11 pm (UTC)
Only One is not number one.

Invalid list.
kamoteatmani 15th-Dec-2012 05:36 am (UTC)
As a BoA stan I am also almost compelled to say this but sadly BoA didn't make any great impact on the Kpop scene with Only One so I can't go as far as saying she should be number one... but at least a spot in those charts instead of a special mention :'(
bangable 13th-Dec-2012 07:43 pm (UTC)
Here for Junsu in the Top 5. I feel a little weepy just having someone recognize him- sign of a true stan lol.
hipployta 13th-Dec-2012 08:58 pm (UTC)
I wanted to edit that into my post but I was too late...but yes!
izabera 13th-Dec-2012 08:27 pm (UTC)
softer around the waist
double-chinned avatar
proudly rotund

you'd think he/she was writing about someone who is so fat they can't walk
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
oliwon 13th-Dec-2012 08:35 pm (UTC)
didn't read all this tbh~
and is that B1A4 at no16 *O* good~ better than nothing
annhh 13th-Dec-2012 09:13 pm (UTC)
wow... Crayon as #1. and the rest of the list.. well David is entitled to his.

really random set of celebrities in that last photo.
sweetdary 13th-Dec-2012 09:16 pm (UTC)
the list was edit i think few times because in the morning when i saw it it wasnt TTS by anywhere, and the change mr.taxy for paparazzi. At least they fix something.
luvey 13th-Dec-2012 09:22 pm (UTC)
i'm amused at GD's box being turned so he is the tallest.
i think what this article is forgetting is that most groups in the US market (who aren't one hit wonders) have been pushing themselves within the US market for years. having one song released, or paying to appear on shows that aren't your demographic once or twice isn't going to push your idol. Psy...i think Psy's catchy song (not your typical kpop song) and the humor that seemed to cross language barriers in the video propelled him. He has the attention, but what he now does with it will either keep pushing him forward in the US or make him a one hit wonder.
benihime99 13th-Dec-2012 09:44 pm (UTC)
Well GD's currently the Prince of that castle, until someone starts bringing more money
supplanter 13th-Dec-2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
This is not a bad article, but it doesn't seem like most of it relates to the by-line (or is it just the first sentence of the article?) It says "the most fascinating pop phenomenon of the year sputtered in its attempt to dazzle the U.S.", but PSY hasn't even released his new album. (I mean, I would be surprised if he does well, beyond kpop fans, but he hasn't sputtered yet.)
benihime99 13th-Dec-2012 09:42 pm (UTC)
I think they were talking about 2NE1, BB and GG with that line

k0dama 13th-Dec-2012 10:06 pm (UTC)
How is "Like This" LOWER than "electric shock"????
siaht 13th-Dec-2012 11:47 pm (UTC)
Everything will go back to how it was after GS's luster wears out.
jeugd1 13th-Dec-2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
damn OP, you expect me to read all this? Where the highlighted parts at?
mjspice 14th-Dec-2012 03:41 pm (UTC)
iamtheliquorr 14th-Dec-2012 01:39 am (UTC)
The article was more insightful than i was expecting it to be. K-pop is not going to succeed in the US anytime soon b/c the average American consumer is not going to accept a foreign artist that isn't culturally close enough to be accessible, or who isn't consonant with exotic foreign stereotypes (e.g. the Latin invasion of the late 1990s). Previous attempts to break into the US market flopped because they came off like derivative foreign copies of home-grown Top 40 hits, so clearly becoming more Americanized is not the answer.

Psy inadvertently stumbled upon a winning formula b/c he presented an infectious pop song and an image consonant with American stereotypes of the Asian man as a goofy, quirky funnyman. I am reluctant to say that this is a particular boon for Asian artists in America since the stereotyping that propelled Psy's success does absolutely nothing to challenge dominant perceptions of Asians within western media (see also: the Tiger JK brouhaha). And until those perceptions lose their dominance, K-pop artists have their work cut out for them stateside.
monster_mutt 14th-Dec-2012 08:55 pm (UTC)
so clearly becoming more Americanized is not the answer.

And it's not working with Tae. He's just becoming more and more ridiculous in his quest to be "Western." I want to snatch him baldheaded. His behavior is ridiculous, the way he speaks English is stupid, even his Korean sounds strange now. Ugh.
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