By Liz Tracy
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"With this new album, I just wanted to make something that was purely comedic — something that could make people laugh like crazy even in the midst of all this global economic slowdown," PSY, the "Gangnam Style" Korean YouTube phenomenon, told CNN earlier this year.
Learning how to "Gangnam Style" really is so much more fun than thinking about the looming threat of PSY's nutty North Korean neighbors defying the U.N. Security Council and testing rockets capable of incomprehensible destruction.
In the United States, where a good chunk of the country peacefully turns a blind eye to anything that isn't summarized in a Facebook status, human rights violations, poverty, and hunger play only small supporting roles in the YouTube generation's collective, augmented reality. 'Cause if it ain't on YouTube, it ain't important.
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PSY's viral hit, "Gangnam Style," had been out for only about a month at the time of the CNN interview, but 30 million YouTube users had already watched the video. "I wanted to make them forget — just for a moment even — about their immediate troubles and to entertain them the way entertainment should be all about," he said.
In less time than it takes to gestate a human child, PSY has risen from relative international obscurity to global superstardom, jockeying an invisible horse down the backstretch of the longest 15 minutes ever.
Born Jae-Sang Park, PSY grew up in the affluent Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea, thinking he'd become a businessman like his father, Won-Ho Park, chairman and CEO of semiconductor manufacturer DI Corp.
Shortly after leaving Korea to study business at Boston University, however, PSY realized his true passions: music and entertainment.
"I was at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but [I was] a freshman for four years," PSY joked during a radio interview with Ryan Seacrest. "Class was too early for me. Yeah, freshman for four years — I was so fresh, ya know?"
PSY returned to his native South Korea and built a reputation as one of the country's hottest acts.
The MC ran with showmanship, channeling his inner Queen to become a household name — assuming said household has an internet connection or basic cable, where PSY has appeared on Today, Ellen, and the American Music Awards, to name a few.
"I've only done this [music] for 12 years, only for Korea, not for overseas at all," PSY added. "I didn't expect anything like this. So what can I say? Everything moves way too fast."
Way too fast is right.
"To the U.S. and the world, I'm just known as some funny song and some funny music, some funny video guy. But in Korea, I'm doing one of the biggest concerts; it's not a dance music concert. I'm playing with the band, so I change my every song to a rock song. I'm going to do some concerts later, so you're going to see that."
Until then, however, "oppa is Gangnam style."
"Gangnam Style" recently became the most-watched video on YouTube, surpassing Justin Bieber's "Baby" with more than 850 million views.
By comparison, that's more than the population of the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined... A lot more.
Meanwhile, Bieber's breakthrough video had about 806 billion YouTube views at print time after nearly three years on the web, roughly 40 million fewer views than "Gangnam Style" achieved in just four months.
However, PSY's next music video may prove to be the most challenging.
"I think I have plenty of dance moves left," he said at the Bangkok news conference. "But I'm really concerned about the [next] music video. How can I beat 'Gangnam Style'? How can I beat 850 million views?"
He may not.
But for now, however, "Gangnam" is everywhere. And the 34-year-old Korean man sporting stylishly sophisticated electric-blue tuxedos and Thierry Lasry eyewear sits perched on his throne, high above new media's mountain of commercially viable pop culture, comfortably milking the "Gangnam Style" cash cow licensing fee after licensing fee after licensing fee.
"Actually, 'Gangnam Style' was my Halloween costume," quipped YouTube CEO Salar Kamangar while accepting the International Center for Journalists' award for News Innovation in November. "I actually had to get up on stage at a company meeting and do a little bit of [the dance]."
We're almost certain that Kamangar wasn't the only person in the room wearing a PSY costume at his office's Halloween party. Gangnam-style costumes were remarkably popular this past October, and the "Gangnam Style" dance has been parodied by everyone from Filipino prisoners at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center to members of the U.S. Navy. But the fact that Kamangar looted the set of his company's most-watched music video for a holiday party only proves the point that if it ain't happening on YouTube, it ain't important.