The Life of PSY: The K-Pop sensation on art and life

by Josh McTaggart

Last summer, there was one song, one YouTube video and one dance routine everyone knew, from your baby brother to your aging grandmother. K-Pop sensation PSY’s dance tune Gangnam Style could be heard from speakers world-wide while partygoers learned to trot like a horse across the dance floor. A smash hit, the song garnered one billion views on YouTube, making it the first video on the Internet to reach that milestone. (It currently has 1.6 billion views.) On May 9 at Harvard's Memorial Church, in an event co-sponsored by Harvard University’s Korea Institute, the Office for the Arts Learning from Performers Program and the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, the YouTube sensation addressed a crowd of about 800 Harvard students, faculty and community members. After introductions by professors Carter J. Eckert and Alexander Zahlten, PSY cracked jokes about his English language skills, reminisced about his failings as an undergraduate at Boston University and recalled how Madonna permitted him to "touch her anywhere" during their performance together at Madison Square Gardens last year. After the talk, while students enjoyed free Korean food (compliments of PSY) outside Mem Church, the Harvard Arts Blog had an exclusive backstage interview with the entertainment star about his career, his future plans and his advice for aspiring artists.

You were making music a decade before Gangnam Style became a YouTube sensation in America. How has the music you produce changed over your career?

Because of the Internet and because of YouTube we can share things with each other very easily at the same time. A lot of people compare [Gangnam Style] with the Macarena, but honestly I think the Macarena is a lot stronger than my song because they didn’t have any kind of sharing tools or platforms. That song was just famous, but [Gangnam Style] got a lot of help from these platforms.

Can you talk about your relationship with the Gangnam District, and how it came to inspire your song?

Honestly, we are making a joke about someone who says "I’m Gangnam style," which is basically a fancy sense of fashion. It’s a joke when someone who doesn’t look like Gangnam style keeps saying "Gangnam style." It’s very funny in my country. I lived in Gangnam, but I know I don’t look like Gangnam style. I wrote that song with this kind of twist, but I didn’t expect that twist to work in other countries.

Do you have a name for your style?

A name for my style? I guess: approaching my body shape.

Do you watch any of the Gangnam Style parodies on YouTube?

I saw the parody that MIT did. It was great. They were at their campus by the Charles River, which was so exciting because I am so familiar with all the scenery. I was also really excited that last Halloween in the United States there were all these tubby guys wearing a tux and sunglasses.

You talked about Madonna earlier. What other American artists would you like to collaborate with?

Of course there are a lot, but as a composer and a producer I don’t think about collaborating artists, first I think about making the track, and after that is done, if I can think of someone then I should ask him or her. I don’t do that before making music.

So there is no one dream artist you want to work with?

Everyone is a dream artist.

Tell us a bit about your newest song, Gentleman.

In Gentleman, he keeps saying he is a gentleman, but he doesn’t act like a gentleman. There’s a similar twist to Gangnam Style. If I had made a video with a real gentleman, it would have been really boring. In the video, he’s a real jerk. A lot of people in the YouTube comments are saying, "Hey, be respectful to ladies!"

What’s next for PSY?

I’ll be in America until the end of May promoting Gentleman. I have an offer from the U.K. to play at Capital FM Summer Ball in Wembley Stadium. The reason why that occasion is so special to me is that my first and last role model was Freddie Mercury from Queen. Their last concert footage is from Wembley Stadium, and I grew up with that specific scene at Wembley. Now I have a chance to be there as a singer. Wow! In the mean time, I’m making an album that will be my 7th in Korea, but my debut album in the rest of the world.

Finally, what advice do you have for Harvard students hoping to make music their life?

I really hate to regret, but honestly the only thing that I regret these days is that I tried too hard with Gentleman. There was a lot pressure after Gangnam Style. So what I can say to those who are making art, please do not try too hard. It’s got to be natural and it’s got to be casual.

[Caption: YouTube sensation PSY with OFA blogger Josh McTaggart '13]

[Caption: Earlier in the day, PSY met with Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust - and then posted this image on his Twitter account.]