Five years ago on July 15, 2012, South Korean rapper Psy dropped a music video that would end up changing the face of viral videos forever.
Satirical and over the top, “Gangnam Style” mocked the titular Seoul neighborhood and spurred a craze that had millions emulating the horseback-riding dance moves. Propelled by the video’s success, the single went to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, the highest ever by a Korean artist. By the end of the year, Psy had the most-viewed music video ever, and was the first person to ever see a video hit the 1 billion view marker on YouTube. Two years later, YouTube revealed that “Gangnam Style” had literally broken the streaming platform.
Over the phone from Seoul, Psy spoke to Billboard about the impact of “Gangnam Style” on his career.
What were your thoughts immediately before “Gangnam Style” was released?
I didn’t have any international fans at that point, so I didn’t expect anything global. I just did what I’ve done before. I was a Korean singer and whenever I released an album, the purpose of it was just to make good songs in Korean, and hopefully to make a hit song that people in Korea could enjoy. That was everything.
How did the song come about?
It was not that special. Before “Gangnam Style,” I had already done music and been a singer in Korea for more than a decade, since 2001. Similarly to other previous singles, I made energetic music and funny music along with funny dances, funny videos, and funny lyrics. I honestly didn’t mean anything that much. [Laughs]
The music video caught on like wildfire. How did you feel about that as a singer?
The lyrics were all in Korean and outside of Korea nobody knows the exact lyrics, right? It was like a nonverbal movie. I felt like they felt something but they were not really sure what I was talking about.
It was sort of like why people like EDM. EDM doesn’t have any lyrics, so that means it’s simple. And simple is the strongest. People had a good feeling without knowing exactly what the lyrics were about. But as a singer and a songwriter, of course I want to communicate more details through the lyrics. It was a good thing that people got excited without lyrics, but on the other hand I was wondering if I should translate it into English.
It became an immense hit by September, but when did you personally feel that it was a global phenomena?
When [Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande manager] Scooter Braun called me, I felt that. Scooter one day called me and he was really interested in the song and video, and me. He thought he could make it huge in the U.S. As soon as I got the call, I Googled him. When I found out who he was, I was so shocked and felt that maybe the song could become something. That was the first moment I thought it was different.
Why do you think it caught on internationally?
I still don’t know why it was so special. If I knew why, I could make it again and again. After five years later, I still have to talk about “Gangnam Style.” If I did it intentionally, it wouldn’t work as strongly. Right now, these days when I make music or music videos, I try my best to focus and to become [like] me from before “Gangnam Style.” Not to do something intentionally. Doing it with intention takes a lot of effort for things to be natural, so that’s what I’ve felt for the last five years.
You predicted that it would happen eventually when you spoke to Billboard in May, but how did it feel when Wiz Khalifa‘s “See You Again” featuring Charlie Puth surpassed “Gangnam Style” as the most viewed music video on YouTube just days away from the anniversary?
I was able to predict it because the speed is so fast these days. Like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Adele’s “Hello,” and a lot of other songs, the speed is just so rapid. I don’t know if it’s because of the language barrier or what, but their speed is immense. Meanwhile, “Gangnam Style” may be no. 2, no. 3, or no. 4. But still, the fact that a song from Korea with Korean lyrics shook, literally, a lot of continents, and made people dance that summer, and was no. 1 for almost five years, that already is more than an honor. The fact that it was no. 1 for so long isn’t changing. I’m pretty much satisfied by that.
Since going viral, you’ve released many songs and recently you released a new album, 4×2=8. How does the song affect the rest of your work? Is it a struggle to live in a post-”Gangnam Style” world as a musician?
Honestly, when I got the offer from Billboard about the interview for the fifth anniversary, I really thought, “I don’t want to talk about ‘Gangnam Style’ anymore.”
Before and after “Gangnam Style,” my life and career changed. My new songs aren’t as huge as “Gangnam Style,” but every time I release music videos there are so many people from many countries watching, looking forward to and supporting them. Even if the songs aren’t as strong [successes] as “Gangnam Style,” because of it as a singer and a creator I have a lot of positive chances to make a lot of people in a lot of countries listen to my music and watch my videos. I personally really appreciate “Gangnam Style” so much.
You were always a bit of an odd man out in the youth-oriented Korean music scene, and now when people speak about the industry and K-pop, your name is often mentioned. How do you feel being Korea’s musical poster child?
In culture and business, everything happens coincidentally and accidentally. In Korea, there are so many muscular, handsome, pretty K-poppers and I’m kind of chubby honestly. Personally, I felt a little bit guilty representing my country’s music. Right now if somebody is going to do a better job than me from now on, he or she has to be less chubbier than me. [Laughs.] That was like 51% a joke, and 49% being humble.
What would you like people to think about Psy and your legacy as “Gangnam Style” gets further and further away from the present?
Before “Gangnam Style,” releasing a new song meant it was just a new song. In Korea, I’m really famous for my shows. Mostly, the reason I release new songs is to add to my [concert] repertoire. After “Gangnam Style” in Korea, people had high expectations for my new songs but still I’m focusing on making my concerts right now. Honestly, five years after “Gangnam Style,” I think that happiness is being at the right place for you.
My right place right now is having a huge concert in Korea after releasing my new album 4×2=8. I just opened my summer concert ticket sales in Korea and it sold out faster than ever, even than [my show] in 2012 when “Gangnam Style” was released. As a 40-year-old artist, my concert is the hottest of my career right now. So I’m really happy with that. Maybe there won’t be another “Gangnam Style,” but hopefully, I will be able to get a chance to show people in other countries my concert.
These days, because of the Internet there is no nationality with culture. As soon as I’m done with my concerts, when I upload videos to YouTube a lot of people see and I get calls from other countries about making a concert. But I really want to share with them a lot of songs, not one or two songs. Maybe people know at least two of my songs very well, two songs so-so, and one or two songs they’ve heard once in their life. I want to make a concert when there’s ten songs to share [between myself and the audience]. Even if it takes a lot of time, I really want to do that.
To me, concerts are for sharing as everyone feels the same way in the same place. I have a lot of hit songs in Korea but still I need more hit songs globally. When the time comes, and when I think I have enough songs to share with a lot of people, I’m going to start thinking of making concerts overseas.
Any final words about your career moving forward with the legacy of “Gangnam Style”?
The legacy of “Gangnam Style” these days on social media has a lot of people saying “R.I.P Gangnam Style,” because of “See You Again.” As soon as I saw those comments, I felt, “Why is he saying that?” But after thirty seconds I was smiling. What kind of pop song can get that comment, “R.I.P”? I liked it. [Laughs.]
Did that make you feel like maybe it’s time to move on from “Gangnam Style” and towards the next stage of your career?
I really want to do so.