Mr. Soft Power

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Forget about Kim Jong Un’s nukes. With PSY, South Korea [perhaps] unwittingly created the new normal for pop music and changed our world forever. Here’s how.

Is he a sellout?

The idea of a ‘sellout’ no longer holds much water, since the music business of record sales, MTC patronage, and a shoddy supply chain has all but evaporated. In this age of democratic torrents, gone is the privilege reserved for true artistry. What exists in its place, itself a greater boon contrasting the apocalyptic extinction of credible first-week Billboard success, is a digital current of fresh material fans aren’t compelled to pay for. It’s almost utopian, except nobody cares about how sustainable it is.

This new state of affairs seems to be working very well for the 35-year- old Park Jae Sang, better known as PSY, he of Gangnam Style notoriety. The chubby rapper, who cites Queen and 80s rock as his biggest inspirations, admitted the faux horse dance he described to a journalist as “cheesy” was painfully choreographed in the recording studio before the single was released.

On April 11, YouTube’s official blog announced the same man responsible for “putting Seoul’s Gangnam district on the map and single-handedly reviving the powder blue tux” would air a live performance on the 13th to coincide with his new single Gentleman. It comes as no surprise that this campaign launched on a Saturday, landing on YouTube’s front page with the force of a tsunami. As of this writing, total hits are 298,160,000 strong. Being on the front page does that.

Gentleman is typical PSY fare. In it, the garbled Hangul lyrics sprinkled with exclamations of ‘sexy’ and ‘party mafia’ weave a convoluted yarn about being a swaggering jerk. The video itself is impressive, with PSY strutting around in low-crotch trousers and dark Ray-Bans on the prowl for female attention. Its most priceless scene features him unleashing a fart on a woman’s face. A streamlined dance number involving swaying hips and pelvic thrusts along to a hypnotic beat forms the backbone of the spectacle.

Dapper Fellow
Numbing saturation across the mainstream was never in the cards for PSY, who came from a well-to-do family and enjoyed short-lived stints at Stanford and Berkeley. He dropped out twice before embracing hip-hop.

The truth is, PSY would have sunk into glorious obscurity without the help of a powerful record label. This is YG Entertainment, founded and run by a savvy Yang Hyun Suk, himself a former boy band heartthrob. He and PSY knew each other in the close-knit South Korean music scene, where the latter had broken through thanks to his dance moves and willingness to rap his ass off.

After four albums that seemed to encompass the beginning and end of PSY’s vitality as an artist, glory had eluded him. What was the father of twin daughters to do? Fate and his wife’s encouragement brought him under YG Entertainment, who released his fifth LP. In July 2012, his label orchestrated the success of Gangnam Style on the web to hype his sixth album. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Not quite. Shortly after Gangnam Style made minor ripples online, it took the keen eye of Scooter Braun to ensnare PSY and bring him to the US. Scooter Braun is responsible for much of PSY’s international success. As the man who elevated Justin Bieber to annoying stardom and polluted radio with Call Me, Maybe, Braun possesses a knack for spotting the next insane trend for susceptible tweens. He banked big on PSY, with spectacular results.

By September 2012, PSY had joined Braun’s Schoolboy Records talent stable, allowing YG Entertainment access to its lucrative partnership with Universal Music. This is the how the music business v20.13 works. No more competing monoliths, just intersecting partners across countries. So in the span of several months, the K-pop, pan-Asian appeal combined with the machinery that fabricated Justin Bieber rejuvenated PSY, making him what he is.

The takeaway from the success of PSY is simple. In this age of ubiquitous instant access to whatever diversion, from games to movies to e-books and our beloved music, it has actually become easier for powerful entities to engineer success on a massive scale. Unbelievable? Just ask Carla Rae Jepsen.


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