SEOUL -- When South Korea finally got its breakthrough, it wasn’t thanks to its usual polished pop exports, but a stocky jokester in a candy-colored suit, an oddball once known as “the Bizarre Singer.”
It was Park Jae-sang, now known worldwide as Psy, whose single hit the highest echelons of the Billboard charts. Who popped up on "Saturday Night Live" and the "Today Show." Who taught Britney Spears his addictively goofy “horsey dance” on "Ellen."
College marching bands took up his tune; American cheerleaders winningly galloped to the unexpected hit “Gangnam Style” as it climbed higher and higher in popularity.
All this for a star whose song had been waning on the Korean charts. Breaking into American pop made a comic rapper an unlikely hero for a country anxious about its place in the world. And its stunning, unpredicted success left a nation that has devoted millions to national branding again puzzling over what it takes to make it in America.
“Before Psy, the Korean singers who wanted to make it in the U.S. thought they had to do everything American style,” pop culture critic Ha Jae-keun said. “They spent substantial time in the U.S. They met up with all kinds of people. They hired U.S. personnel to produce their songs” -- and they sang in English.
“Koreans thought if someone made it in the U.S., it would be the pretty girls or boys,” the critic concluded. “Not a middle-aged man singing in Korean.”
Yet while many South Korean pop singers had obsessed over fitting in with Western trends, Psy was the one who set trends himself. K-Pop girl groups had struggled to break into the mainstream of American music, even as their sales soared elsewhere. Local singers covered songs by Beyonce and Rihanna, never vice versa. Western success eluded them despite carefully engineered marketing.
“No matter how many cellphones or cars we sold, sweeping the Asian market with the so-called Korean Wave, entering Billboard was something one couldn’t possibly dare dream of,” South Korean culture critic Won Jong-woo wrote. Yet Psy had broken that barrier with “very pronounced Korean looks and music, with a song written in Korean,” an idea that once would have seemed “plain crazy.”
The runaway success of “Gangnam Style” astounded Psy himself, who told a Seoul audience last year that language barriers blocked South Korean musicians from success in the U.S.
“The twists that I put on my lyrics … can’t be transmitted to an audience in a different environment when you don’t have a complete understanding of their language and emotions,” Psy was quoted as saying by the Korea Times.
Yet "Gangnam Style" grabbed the top spot this week on British charts. His music video racked up hits, becoming the most liked in YouTube history. The singer still sounded surprised after three packed weeks in the U.S., comparing his star turn to the surrealism of “The Truman Show.”
"I don't know how long this road will continue on, but please cheer me on until that day arrives," Psy said at a Seoul homecoming crowded with hundreds of reporters last week. "And even if all this ends, please don't be disappointed. I want to help out in enhancing the Koreans’ position."
Seeing the song climb the charts is “electrifying,” said Byon Sa-rah, a 25-year-old business owner. “I couldn’t believe a song by a Korean artist, sung in Korean, could make it that far.”
Seoul public relations expert Seo Kyoung-duk estimated that what Psy had done to promote South Korea abroad was worth a billion dollars in public relations, a serious matter for a country that formed a Presidential Council on National Branding three years ago to try to burnish its international image. At a meeting late last month, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik suggested South Korea would need to bolster its tourism infrastructure because “the Korean Wave is spreading with 'Gangnam Style.'”
But it’s also the last thing that South Korea boosters might have expected to work. The song that made Psy famous is a send-up of the nouveau-riche Gangnam District in Seoul, a pricey enclave known for luxury boutiques and high-end department stores. It’s a Korean reference that sails straight over the heads of most Westerners, a joke that wasn’t aimed at English speakers.
Yet "it was so funny that it made people around the world want to learn more about what it all means," said Lee Taek-gwang, cultural studies professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. "He has proved that what is uniquely a Korean thing could have a universal appeal."
For Korean pop critics, the unexpected hit has left them rethinking the recipe for success in the United States. “To make it in the U.S., you have to be unique and superbly compelling,” critic Won concluded in a recent column. “You have to have an X factor to make it there.”
-- Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: South Korean rapper Psy, who sings the popular song "Gangnam Style," performs during a concert in Seoul. Credit: Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press