The internet dance sensation was created to mock the pretensions of Seoul's wealthy citizens. Since then, David Cameron, Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon have learned the moves. Jay Rayner shares his experience with the popular meme.
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Learning to dance like a horse is really, really hard, even when you have a good teacher – and mine is the best in the world. He is a stocky, soft-cheeked 34-year-old Korean man wearing a shiny dinner jacket, co-respondent shoes without socks and enough make-up to make Katie Price seem like an ambassador for the natural look. Psy, short for Psycho – real name Park Jae-sang – is also the biggest pop star on the planet right now. He is credited with demolishing cultural barriers while getting the world dancing. I should be in good hands. The video for his song “Gangnam Style”, released in July, is officially the most “liked” ever on YouTube – 5m times and counting. It’s the second-most watched after Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, with more than 700m views (again and counting. In this story everything is forward motion). It has gone to No 1 in 28 countries. It is entirely in Korean.
The track, shamelessly mocking the pretensions of people who falsely associate themselves with the fashions and styles of the sprauncy Gangnam district of Seoul – a kind of South Korean Beverly Hills – has been called a “force for world peace” by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Not bad for a bunch of dance moves involving a wide-legged strut as if riding a horse, hands crossed at the wrists as though gripping the reins, followed by a whipping gesture. Flash mobs 30,000 strong have danced Gangnam style. Boris Johnson claimed to have danced Gangnam style with David Cameron at Chequers one weekend. Barack Obama has promised to dance Gangnam style for Michelle in the White House. That’s how to keep a relationship alive.
As a result, Psy has been called upon to teach the dance to others. He has taught it to Britney Spears. He has taught it to Justin Bieber. And now the poor sod has to teach it to me, a man who, when they were handing out the feet, was clearly in the queue marked “fish”. We stand in the middle of a ballroom at London’s Dorchester Hotel, watched by his entourage and a photographer and video crew there to record this moment for a posterity which won’t thank us for the effort. He shows me the double hop from one foot to the other, a rhythmic shuffle which must be mastered first before you can bring the crossed wrists into play. I lift my right foot to copy him, and…
But let’s leave us there for the moment, standing in the middle of an empty ballroom, me with one pigeon-toed foot raised, Psy staring at me as if afraid I’m about to fall over. (I just may.) It is a few hours earlier, we are at the headquarters of BBC Radio 1 and the Psy roadshow has just rolled into town. The night before, he was addressing the students at the Oxford Union, in the English he learned during four years as a student in America. Now he has a shiny limo, a herd of lens-tumescent paparazzi and a crowd of fans waiting for him.
He left South Korea a month ago, on an international tour which he confesses has taken him by surprise. He uploaded the video to YouTube on 15 July. Within days it was being talked up on Twitter by the likes of Robbie Williams, Katy Perry and Tom Cruise. It would secure him a management contract with Scooter Braun, who also manages Justin Bieber, and spawn countless YouTube parodies. Among them there’s a tail-coated “Eton Style” by the school’s pupils, another by a bunch of Klingons, a “Jewish Style” and almost inevitably one that mashes together “Gangnam Style” with the scene of Hitler in his bunker from the film Downfall.
I will hear Psy interviewed for radio and television during our time together, and unsurprisingly there will be a number of stock lines to which he will return, made no less true for repetition. “I don’t call this success,” he says to the DJ Scott Mills, to a reporter for Radio 1’s Newsbeat, to Jonathan Ross and eventually to me. “This is a phenomenon. This is not made by me. It’s made by people.”
He knows the difference. The fact is that while Psy may be new to many of us, success is not new to him. “Gangnam Style” is a single from his sixth album. He has been topping the charts in South Korea for a dozen years, which means that the character who has been unleashed upon the world – and it is a character – is fully formed. What matters is understanding that character, the way he’s ripping it out of people claiming to be classy in the way they are perceived to be in Gangnam, where Psy himself grew up.
“I’m not that good looking,” he says, and there’s no point arguing with him. For all his charisma, he is unexceptional. What he does have, though, is brilliant comic timing; a way of using a caricature of Asian implacability that is simply devastating. “That’s why ‘Gangnam Style’ works,” he says to me. “If someone handsome uses that phrase it’s just awkward. But if someone like me uses it, it’s funny.”
The success of this latest song has been heralded by many as a break-out for K-Pop, a particular brand of shiny, glossy and heavily manufactured music that dominates the Asian charts. Except that K-Pop broke out a long time ago. Driven by the power of social media, K-Pop acts such as Rain, the Wonder Girls and SM Town have been filling huge arenas across the US since 2006. By the same token, while Psy is Korean and his music is most definitely pop he is not mainstream K-Pop. In a highly conservative society, most K-Pop artists are groomed through a fame-school system for stardom – dance lessons, singing lessons, how to deal with the media – before being unleashed on the public with a highly innocuous product calibrated to offend as few people as possible.
Psy is completely self-invented. The son of an affluent businessman, he flunked his way through school. Sent to study business in Boston in the late 90s, he packed it in for courses in contemporary music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music (also not completed). He has never shied away from causing offence. His first album, Psy from the Psycho World, released in 2001, brought him a fine for “inappropriate content”. His second album brought complaints that its content might have a negative impact on children and was banned from sale to under-19s.
There was an arrest for marijuana possession and a run-in with the authorities for failing to show enough commitment to his duties under military service (a serious issue in a country still officially at war with North Korea). As he puts it now: “Before ‘Gangnam Style’ I was not a good attitude artist. I was bad ass. They don’t have an expectation of me on the moral side.” No matter. He has still been given a state honour for “increasing the world’s interest in Korea”. Not that he’s especially delighted. “That’s a huge responsibility. I don’t want it. I’m not responsible for ‘Gangnam Style’. And now I have to be good.”
We troop into the studio of Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills for a pre-recorded interview. Mills is credited with breaking the track over here and helping it to number one. In a masterstroke his production team asked the Radio 4 continuity announcer Kathy Clugston to read the lyrics to “Gangnam Style” in her cut-glass BBC voice: “I’m a guy, a guy who has bulging ideas rather than bulging muscles; a guy who goes completely crazy when the right time comes.” It merely emphasised the comedy.
Mills asks him what he plans next. Psy says he will do another album, but only half in English. The rest will still be in Korean. The fact is that countless K-Pop bands had tried to break into global markets by singing in English and it simply hadn’t worked. “I didn’t make any effort to make this happen,” he says. “The next time I have to do it on purpose. If it maintains I’m fine. I don’t feel the pressure.’
He receives a certificate from the Guinness Book of Records for the most-liked video on YouTube. Psy says it is the first certificate he has ever received, and we sense he’s not entirely joking.
Then comes the inevitable request by Mills to be taught the dance, something Psy reckons he has now done more than 1,000 times. Watching the process, the appeal becomes obvious. First, the dance is absurd, ridiculous in the true sense of the word, so that even if you do it right it’s funny. And if you do it badly – or at least not too badly – it doesn’t really matter. What’s more, there’s the simple fact that you can learn it all. “Gangnam Style” was not simply a hit to be consumed; it was something to be participated in. Hence the parodies. Hence the cult.
Over at the Dorchester Hotel Psy and I delay our dance-step moment for a while. The night before, while talking to the Oxford Union, he had apologised for the quality of his English and said that, had he been able to speak in Korean, he would have had them rolling in the aisles. I ask him if the language barrier is frustrating. He agrees it is. “In Korean my lyrics are witty and have twists. But translated into English it doesn’t come over. I’ve tried writing in English, just for me, but it doesn’t work. I’ve got to know everything about a culture and I don’t.” Still, he says, the single went number one all over the world without the wit. “I suppose this means I still have weapons left.”
Psy, he says, is a character. “It’s a product made by me. It’s the most dynamic part of me. I like the word artist, but I don’t like the word artist inside my house.” He is married with two children. “When the shows are done I just want to go home and be myself.” He admits a regret at the way he is now portrayed and compares it to his debut a dozen years ago in South Korea. “Back then I was just the funny guy with dance moves. They didn’t talk about the composing or the stage presence, and that’s the same now. I suppose it’s just a matter of time.”
That said, he confesses to having put what even he regards as a ludicrous amount of effort into the dance moves that became “Gangnam Style”, sweating across a month with his choreographer to come up with something that would work. “We went through many animals. There was snake, there was kangaroo…” How does a kangaroo dance? He looks at me, face placid. “It hops.” I deserved that. It is clear that he finds the fallout from those 30 days of deliberation unnerving. “Just one song did this. It’s too much. It’s too huge. They don’t even want another story. People need time to figure me out and I need time to show myself to them.”
I almost feel guilty asking him to teach me the dance, but he doesn’t object. That said, as we make our way up the stairs he lets out a hiss of air.
I say: “You sighed.” He gives a thin smile.
But when the cameras are turned on he does the thing, not even flinching when we have to start again because of a muted microphone. He shows me the steps and I try as best I can to get my various limbs moving in the right direction. It feels like a piece of Ikea flat-pack furniture. I sense exactly how it’s meant to look, but getting there will be a struggle. It is a mark of Psy’s genius and forbearance that somehow he gets me doing The Dance. I am Gangnam style.
The next day he has his appearance on the Jonathan Ross Show. Then it’s off to Frankfurt for the MTV awards. He’ll fly from there to Los Angeles for the American Music Awards, up to Canada and then back to Europe. The Psy Roadshow has a long way to go. He has many more people who need to learn the steps. The small man from Gangnam is conquering the world one bonkers horse ride at a time.