In 2012, a phenomenon swept the planet. The catchy tune of “Gangnam Style” and the eccentric music video that accompanied it seemed to have the whole world dancing for a while. And the man behind it, South Korean singer Psy, was a megastar for a brief time. But gradually, as with most unexpected hits, “Gangnam Style” and its creator seemed to fade away. Psy can still claim to have been behind the most-viewed YouTube video of all time. But ask the average viewer of the music video what he’s up to now and they’ll likely have no idea. So without further ado, let’s find out more about him.
Psy, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, was fairly well known in South Korea before he achieved international fame. As a child, he had seen a television show featuring the rock band Queen performing live. And it was this which inspired him to take up music. By 2000, he had dropped out of university and embarked on a career as a singer.
By and large, it was a successful move. His songs were controversial in South Korea, but controversy sells. Though his first and second albums were both censored by South Korean authorities due to “inappropriate content,” they were still popular. Indeed, before long, he was picking up awards for his music. And despite having to take time out to undertake mandatory military service, he was more than making a living with it.
In 2006 Psy got married to Yoo Hye Yeon and had twin daughters with her. And he released his fifth studio album – another controversial one – in 2010. He was becoming ever more popular in South Korea, winning accolades the following year at both the Mnet Asian Music Awards and the Melon Music Awards. Then, he decided it was time to try and break the world market. So in 2012 he and some other K-pop bands headed to Osaka, Japan, to perform.
On stage, Psy announced himself to his new audience by holding up a sign. It read, “I’m a famous singer well known for driving the audience wild in Korea, but here, today, I’m just a little chubby newcomer.” The Japanese audiences loved the sign – and they loved the songs even more. Little did they know that the “little chubby newcomer” was about to become one of the most talked-about people on the planet.
When Psy released “Gangnam Style” in July 2012, he surely never expected that it would become as popular as it did. It transformed him into a megastar overnight. The music video went viral. The song shot to number one on the iTunes Music Video Charts. Suddenly, A-list celebrities were declaring their love for it on Twitter. Psy, the new king of the K-pop world, was as astounded as everybody else.
“I’ve only done this for 12 years, only for Korea, not for overseas at all,” Psy told the New York Times in October 2012. “I didn’t expect anything like this. So what can I say? Everything moves way too fast.” But the conclusion of the interview was a little concerning. “What do you do when you’re not performing?” the newspaper asked. “I’m drinking. It’s my biggest hobby,” Psy replied.
The “Gangnam Style” madness just kept on coming. Before 2012 was over, Psy had picked up multiple awards, been appointed as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and been recognised as an “international sensation” by the United Nations, no less. Celebrities were practically queuing up to meet with him. But in a speech made in England, Psy admitted he was living in “a dream and a nightmare.”
But things were about to get considerably more nightmarish for Psy. At the end of 2012, just as he had been asked to perform for President Barack Obama, the media unearthed evidence that a decade previously he had performed songs condemning the United States and its military. “Kill those f***ing Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives,” he sang in one of of his old songs. Some people were up in arms and called for the Obama visit to be cancelled.
The lyrics of his 2004 song “Dear American” were highly critical of American foreign policy. But Psy quickly released a public apology. “The song I was featured in – from eight years ago – was part of a deeply emotional reaction to the war in Iraq and the killing of two innocent Korean civilians that was part of the overall anti-war sentiment shared by others around the world at that time,” he said.
“While I’m grateful for the freedom to express one’s self, I’ve learned there are limits to what language is appropriate,” he continued. “I’m deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted. I will forever be sorry for any pain I have caused anyone by those words.” His apology was accepted – the outrage died down and Psy still got to meet Obama as planned. He even shook his hand.
People were excited to see what the follow-up to “Gangnam Style” would be. After the “Dear American” incident, Psy was very careful about his public image. When he learned that the title of his new song could potentially be offensive to Arabic people, he changed the name to “Gentleman.” And it was a big success, racking up 100 million YouTube views in just three days.
But as we all know, fame often doesn’t come easily. And Psy was no exception to the rule. In a 2013 interview with the Sunday Times, he revealed that he had suffered childhood abuse at the hands of his father, that he had once been arrested for drug possession back in South Korea… and that he loved to drink.
“If I’m happy, I’m drinking, if I’m sad, I’m drinking. If it’s raining, I’m drinking, if it’s sunny I’m drinking,” he said. Those words were surely familiar to alcoholics all over the world. “If it’s hot, I’m drinking, if it’s cold, I’m drinking,” he went on. Vodka, Psy told the newspaper, was his “best friend.” Fans were glad that Psy had brought the issue up – but they were also worried.
In 2014 Psy released a song called “Hangover.” A collaboration with American rapper Snoop Dogg, it was a raucous celebration of South Korean drinking culture. But despite the new song garnering more than 31 million hits on YouTube, Psy’s spotlight – along with the international profile of K-pop – was starting to fade.
He was still doing well in his home country, though. Now that he was one of South Korea’s most famous exports, officials there had decided to make him an official tourism ambassador. The Korean Tourism Organisation, keen to modernise and to attract as many people as possible, released a series of “Wiki-Korea” ads which starred Psy explaining different aspects of Korean culture.
By the end of the year Psy could more than afford to retire, as “Gangnam Style” had put his net worth into the millions. However, he didn’t want to, and he was a little frustrated that it looked like one song would forever define him. “After ‘Gangnam Style,’ I was really happy but sometimes I was not happy, because that’s my lifetime biggest song and I’m not going to top [it],” Psy told Entertainment Weekly in 2015.
For a while, I kind of felt a little bit of pressure, like, ‘How can I top that one?’,” he continued. “I thought about being me, not the ‘Gangnam’ guy, or whatever. I was focused on finding myself.” And that’s what he did. At the end of 2015 he released a new album called Chiljip PSY-Da, which translates from Korean to “This is Psy’s Seventh Album.”
But in 2016, it seemed like Psy’s time in the sun was eventually coming to an end. In January of that year, Adele broke one of his records – her single “Hello” racked up one billion views on YouTube faster than “Gangnam Style” had done. Yet Psy wasn’t yet finished. While in October of that year his record company stated to the media that there was “nothing concrete regarding his comeback,” he still had big plans.
Psy released his eighth album, 4X2=8 on May 1, 2017. Though it definitely wasn’t a disaster – the track “I Luv It” reached the top of many international charts – it didn’t set the world on fire in the same way “Gangnam Style” had once done. But then again, what could? Though Psy may have mixed feelings about the song that catapulted him to fame, the world still adores it even several years on. And this “little chubby newcomer” has gone down in music history.