It’s been over a decade since PSY revolutionized the K-pop scene with “Gangnam Style,” but the artist never set down the reins from that iconic horse dance.
Across his eight studio albums, PSY has consistently infused his artistic vision with mesmerizing showmanship. His energy is just as infectious onscreen, from his earliest rise to global stardom with the unforgettable music video for “Gangnam Style” all the way to his latest domestic tour, which is now featured in Hulu’s concert special “PSY Summer Swag 2022.”
In the documented performance, PSY takes viewers on a journey through his career with a clip of the “Gangnam Style” music video, highlighting its over 4 billion views on YouTube on overhead screens before launching into the song’s internationally recognized lyrics. The music video notably became the first-ever video to reach a billion views on YouTube, where it now holds the No. 11 spot on the platform’s list of most-watched videos.
The four-minute video satirizing South Korea’s wealthy Gangnam district is hailed as having catalyzed Korean entertainment’s ascent around the world. The “K-wave,” as this cultural phenomenon has come to be known, now takes on a literal meaning as PSY’s concertgoers dancing in the summer heat are doused in waves of water from the stage’s refreshing sprays.
PSY, now aged 45, seems as awe-struck by his rise to stardom as if it happened just yesterday. It’s clear from the moments of silence and his wide-eyed expression throughout our discussion of the latest performance that his journey has been one of gratitude.
Reliving the years he spent in the United States following his rise to stardom, PSY recounts a lack of escape from the spotlight. Particularly in Asian hubs like Koreatown, Korean restaurants or really any other type of Asian restaurant, he says, there wasn’t a moment when someone didn’t try to stop and thank him.
PSY’s return to the U.S. as a star was especially meaningful, having spent the majority of his time here in the late ‘90s as a student — and not a great one at that. He never graduated from Boston University, much to the dismay of his traditional Korean parents, and never suspected the future that awaited him. He still finds himself questioning who’s really owed the thanks.
“They would all say that as Asians, the song made them feel this or feel that, which I appreciate so much,” he says. “They were all saying ‘thank you’ and I was like, ‘Wow, I thank you.’”
“What do you have to thank me for?”
PSY expanded his artistic pursuits into fostering some of the younger talents now gracing stages worldwide. In 2019, two years after the release of his 7th studio album, PSY founded his own record label P Nation, signing artists like Jessi, Hyuna and Dawn. Ten new artists were announced in 2022, the same year he released his eighth album, “PSY 9th.”
Witnessing the ever-evolving landscape of the industry, PSY notes that the Korean audience has gotten “picky.”
“Their listening and watching standards are high, and the audience is demanding,” he says. “So, K-pop artists have to be really good to get famous in Korea, a small population country with so many good contenders.”
Back then, it was a clear-cut matter of whether or not you had the talent to make it in the industry, he continues. “But these days, they are all good. Everybody’s good.”
In light of this, PSY ponders some of the criticisms that Korean entertainment companies have faced, such as the claim that the Korean entertainment industry is a cutthroat industry riddled with toxicity.
“Every occupation is competitive, not just K-pop,” he declares. “But K-pop is famous, and that’s why people are talking a lot about it.
“Are there any occupations that are not competitive?”
PSY himself has kicked things up a notch to remain in the game, stepping into unfamiliar territories in pursuit of artistic expression. Showcased in “Summer Swag” is his meticulous nature in every step of the show, with music and choreography only marking the beginning. Lights, camera, strobes, lasers — every technical component of the show, he’d adopted as his own.
“As a human being, I’m really tenacious. It all starts from there,” he says. “If I wanted to express [my vision], and I didn’t want to miss anything, then I had to participate.”
“I have to be humble,” he adds with a chuckle. “So I’ll say I know at least 51% of the hardware and it all started with being able to better express my song.”
What’s especially intriguing about the spectacle is the convergence of PSY’s groundbreaking songs with the latest of global Korean entertainment.
Esteemed Korean actor Ma Dong-seok, who made his Hollywood debut in Marvel‘s 2021 film “Eternals,” kicks off the show playing PSY’s personal trainer in a humorous pre-recorded skit. Suga is also brought out to the stage, the BTS member having been featured on PSY’s latest album “PSY 9” for the hit collaboration “That That.”
PSY playfully reveals how these collaborations came to fruition after drunken nights together, leaving us to wonder about the number of green bottles under the pocha, or wherever superstars go for hoesik. His retelling of these encounters is reminiscent of the music video for “Hangover,” his follow-up single to “Gangnam Style” and “Gentleman,” made in collaboration with rapper Snoop Dogg.
It started as a matter of great talents admiring each other’s greatness, with Ma “randomly” reaching out to PSY as a fan after grabbing his number from a mutual contact. “When he did boxing or action stunts in the States, or when he needed a boost, he listened to my songs,” PSY recalls.
A memorable night of heavy drinking ensued as PSY was likewise enthusiastic to meet the actor. “I was so touched because he recognized not just single songs, but tracks that weren’t the title song in my full-length albums.”
The encounter with Suga is hardly far off, though with Suga being part of the latest link of the K-pop chain reaction PSY set off, their interaction started out on a more professional note: “Suga first approached me as a producer, asking if it was possible to produce my new song.”
“I said, ‘Come on, you are Suga. Of course it’s possible. Why you ask that kind of silly question?’”
“He’s strong. Suga’s strong – with alcohol, he’s strong,” PSY shares. “We had a drink and we talked to each other, and he appreciated me for paving the way for K-pop and I appreciated him about my ultimate dream of being No. 1 in the Hot 100 because my song reached No. 2 for seven weeks. We appreciated each other a lot. And then he asked me about producing a song, and I asked him, ‘Why don’t you step in the song?’”
It was initially set to be some quick sequence — “two or three hours,” PSY says. But Suga devoted three months of practice into the impressive final cut.
“The beauty of alcohol is that it’s the best icebreaker, right?” PSY quips. “If we were sober, it’s really awkward, two boys sitting and appreciating each other. But if we drink, we can do that.”
Responses from this interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Grace Kim is a New York-based Entertainment Contributor for NextShark
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