Wednesday, August 15, 2012

KOREAN MUSIC: PSY’s “Gangnam Style” and "Gangnam Oppa" in “Architecture 101” (2)

 Behind the Scenes: PSY and Making of Gangnam Style

In 2001 when PSY first showed up in the Korean music scene, he was immediately nicknamed Yeopgi Gasu (엽기가수, “Bizarre Singer”) because he was not a rapper/singer who had a cookie cutter appearance and also whose music was not geared towards cookie cutter lyrics or styles of his generation. (Click to see the young, cute, and thinner PSY perform his debut title Sae (, “Bird”) which sampled Bananarama’s 1986 version of “Venus.”) His looks are always over the top tacky just like those Korean Teutoteu (트로트, “Trot,” a word derived from “foxtrot”) singers, his lyrics are comic and satirical, and his music is uniquely fun and exhilarating.

PSY & Korean Teuroteu singers:
lockwise from top left) PSY, Hyun Cheol,
Tae Jina, and Song Daegwan

PSY’s real name is Park Jaesang and as the title of his studio debut album released in 2001, “PSY from the Psycho World,” explains itself, he adopted his stage name by taking just the first syllable of the word “Psycho.”  Who in the world would call himself "Psycho"?  In real life, the answer may be a mass murderer or something but in PSY’s world, it’s playful self-mockery and self-delight; his lyrics are marked by a willfully tacky sense of humor and a willful air of self-mockery.  BTW, on SBS’s “Good Morning” aired on July 4, 2012, he said he used to live next door to Jo Pidi (조피디, “Cho PD” or “PD Cho”) while studying in Boston, Massachusetts, and there he first came up with his stage name Park Sajang (박사장, “Park CEO” or “CEO Park” ).  Maybe he wanted to emulate Cho PD?  FYI, PSY was involved in Cho PD’s second studio album “In Stardom Version 2.0” released in 1999.

PSY explained on MBC’s “Radio Star” (aired on July 25) why he chose to make “Gangnam Style” the title track of his 6th album:  “I just wanted to go back to my old self the masses loved me for when I first made my singing debut with the song ‘Bird’.”  Yang Hyunseok (YG) said in an interview with Star News (7/28/2012), “His marriage, family, and two-time military service turned PSY into a man in every way.  But the things is, he works his musical magic when he loses himself while performing on stage.  His music has become too goody-goody since his 2002 hit “Champion.”  Of course, his music is now more mature but at the same time it’s true his unique musical style his fans first fell in love with has been gradually diluted. So I told him, while he was working on his 6th album, to forget about looking cool but stick to his initial reserve.  I said, ‘Lose you on stage.  Be a psycho.  Be a screwball. Live up to your stage name.’”

Following YG’s advice, PSY decided to add another song “Gangnam Style” to the album to prove he’s still a screwball and psycho.  He received choreography ideas for the song from Korea’s renowned choreographers and the horse riding dance was one of them.  It was one of the favorite 80’s dance moves.  YG said in an interview that it was one of his specialty dances too and thought it would make people in their thirties or forties feel nostalgic for those days.  So he advised to choose it for the song.  “When the likes of PSY or Big Bang work (on the album, songs or anything), I should leave them alone. ‘Cause they can not only handle it themselves but do it better than me.  But sometimes I see something missing, and that’s when I put in my two cents.  It’s like a single point lesson if you will,” added YG.

While reading YG interview, I was reminded of his “salt metaphor” he had used on SBS’s “K-pop Star” and “The Healing Camp.”

“This salt metaphor has been dwelling on my mind since I became a producer. We add in salt, just 1/1000 of the rich beef bone soup. But without it, it’s really hard to eat the soup. I don’t train my singers in person, but whenever I feel any YGE kid is a little to “bland,” I add some salt to him…..  And YGE has professional choreographers.  I leave them alone.  My job is to check the outcome of their work which is usually 80-90% satisfactory.  But sometimes when they’re stuck at a dead-end, I give them a tip.  For example, I said no, about 30 times, to the choreography for the part that goes “Eheheheheheheheh” in 2NE1’s debut track “Fire.” And eventually I came up with the idea for the part – the hands-up dance.  I always think the simple way.  I created the jump rope dance and baby dance for Bing Bang’s 'Last Farewell' just like that.  I’m the mediator between artists and fans.  I make it easier for masses to understand ‘cause professionals’ choreographies are sometimes too hard.” (Watch YG on “The Healing Camp”: Part 1 & Part 2.)

In an interview with Star News (7/18/2012), PSY said he owes YG most sincere thanks for the ultra mega success of the song: “When it comes to music, YG always provides a clear-eared appraisal.  He’s very stingy with compliments.  When I was working on “Gangnam Style,” for example, no matter what I did, he was never satisfied, which made me want to try harder ‘out of spite.’ And just like that, he brought out the best in me.  In this respect, I think he's a great producer.  In supporting, directing, and supervising the singers, he’s probably one of top three best producers in Asia.”

Making of MV "Gangnam Style"

In the above footage, PSY said he felt pathetic himself while filming each and every scene in the MV.  In fact, the scenes were meant to show crazy, pathetic, and also pleasantly deviant behaviors of people.  And all those episodes in the MV were conceived by him.  He wanted to make the most PSY-ish MV that matches “Gangnam Style,” the most PSY-ish song.  (YG was in charge of the final editing of the MV.)

The MV features Yoo Jaeseok, the most popular TV personality and show presenter in South Korea. In the MV, he had a one on one dance battle with PSY in the parking structure.  Yoo’s character represents a 90’s clubber in Apgujeondong of Gangnam, i.e., Apgujeong Nalrari (압구정 날라리), who actually lives in Suyuri of Gangbuk.  This character originated from its self-titled song “Apgujeong Nalrari,” on which Yoo had dueted with Lee Jeok on MBC’s “Infinity Challenge” last year.  (Click to watch them perform.)  Yoo made a guest appearance in the MV at PSY’s request.

(UPDATE: PSY recently revealed on MBC's Infinity Challenge (aired on December 15, 2012) that he first asked Yoo to collaborate with him as his 6th album was meant to be collaborative; in fact, all the other songs but "Gangnam Style" featured on his 6th album were made in collaboration with other musicians such as G-Dragon, Sung Sikyung, LeeSsang, Kim Jinpyo, Lena Park, and Yoon Dohyun (of YB). But Yoo a previous commitment that clashed with PSY's offer on his timetable, which was none other than his collaboration on the song “Apgujeong Nalrari” with Lee Jeok. So instead, Yoo promised to make a gratuitous cameo appearance in PSY's music video and kept his words.)

On the other hand, Noh Hongcheol, one of the leading TV personalities and show presenters, came together with Yoo to see them film the video, just for fun, and ended up filming together with them, again, gratuitously.  That’s why he appears in the MV, wearing his usual clothing.  FYI, Noh’s dance move is known as Jeojil Daenseu (저질댄스, “Nasty Dance”) and is his signature move.  (Guess some of you may wonder who the mini-me of PSY in the video is.  The boy is Hwang Minwoo, who's a 7-year-old former Korea's Got Talent contestant.  Click to watch him having a dance battle with Jay Park (aka, Park Jaebeom) on SBS's "Star King" (7/8/2012).  The actual dance battle starts at about 1:26 into the video.)

A Youtube user nicknamed Myoldnamesdontwork asked me about one part of the song's music video featuring Big Bang's Daesung and Seungri: "so tell me what is this part 0:49 in this video is representing??? and there is like an explosion....totally random to me..." So I thought I'd better post my answer here too and here it is:
There you see two grandpas play Korean chess called “Janggi” together, which used to be one of Korea’s everyday life scenes. Whenever the village elders played Korean chess outdoors, the villagers including kids were gathered to look on or to kibitz just like PSY does in the MV. I think Janggi is still part of rural fun and games but in modern Korean cities and especially in Gangnam, such heartwarming scenes are disappearing.
In the MV, (i) the grandpas stand up and watch PSY walk away, which I think symbolizes the younger generations’ attention that is being drawn away from age-old traditions; and (ii) the explosion symbolizes the extinction of such traditions -- especially in Gangnam because the grandpas are under a bridge over the Han River. Actually, this part of the MV was the hardest for me to understand and remember, my interpretation may not be perfectly right even though I’m quite confident it is.

BTW, upon first listen, I thought the song was like “DJ DOC’s ‘I’m a Man like This" meets Baha Men’s ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’.”  My sister, who is an ultra hardcore mega fan of the song, never agreed with me and even got briefly mad at me.  DJ DOC’s “I’m a Man like This” was composed by PSY and Yoo Geonhyung (of “The Untitle”) and its lyrics were written by PSY and Lee Haneul (of “DJ DOC”).  PSY was making the song for his own album but when Lee first listened to it, he instantly fell in love with it.  And according to his own words, he literally robbed PSY of the song.  “I’m a Man like This” became an instant mega hit upon its release and (methinks) PSY might have felt deprived of a great opportunity to make it big.  I might be totally wrong as my sister said, but let’s just enjoy yet another self-mocking song performed by DJ DOC.

(Click to read the third part of this series)

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  1. Haha...awesome. Great article. Your ability to recall / research the details is always amazing.

  2. Allan, thanks a lot! Compliments surely make even a whale dance! (This is a Koreanized title for "Whale Done") :)

  3. Hi Onsemiro -- Is there any way I could get in touch? I couldn't fint any contact info but was hoping we could chat for an article I'm working on for Shoot me an email at maxwellefisher at gmail if you could, please. And fantastic post & blog!

  4. I am not a musician, but you seem so right when speaking about how "Gangnam Style" might be a"take revenge" song. And what a sweet revenge! Those tworverya 2 sound alike in terms of repetitiveness of musical phrase, the upbeat rhythm and other things I can only "feel" but lack the musical culture to name them.

  5. Anonym @11:04 AM, I'm not a musician either but it doesn't take one to feel the groove~! haha. BTW, I don't think this song is really about "take revenge"; it is a "satire," which is sarcastic and ironic at the same time. :)

  6. Hello,

    This is such an awesome article on deciphering the music video of Gangnam Style! I understand each and every scene in the MV a lot better now haha

    I don't know, even if I read the lyrics, I couldn't really understand much about the word "Gangnam" itself, it's such a foreign city for me. But anyways, thank you so much for taking the time to explain! Really appreciate it :)

  7. Bonnie, glad to know you enjoyed my blog. Thanks.

  8. Nice commentary about the viral MV hit! I was curious about the video after seeing it for the second time, when I realized certain scenes seem to carry some meaning, and coming from Singapore, I have a inkling what kind of social satire Gangnam Style represents, as a city-nation, Singapore has also its own little area(s) similar to the Gangnam district. Bravo, and I will continue to enjoy reading your articles! :)

  9. Typical Gemini, thanks for checking out my blog and for your kind words! :)

  10. The video may have allusion to many things. But the lyrics is really fluffy.

    From the translation, its all about a oversex guy boasting of his style, looking for a girl and urging her to go all the way with him.

    Dissappointing literally.

  11. Anonym @12:15 AM, as a native speaker of Korean, I can easily catch such figures of speech as oxymoron or metaphor nuanced in the song's seemingly 'fluffy' lyrics; but if there's anything lost in translation, it's all my fault.


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