Psy’s “Gentleman” a viral hit, but enough to keep the Psy brand alive?

/ Apr 17, 2013

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One of the most surreal moments of 2012, for me, was last November, when Korean pop star Psy performed his international viral hit “Gangnam Style” live on the American Music Awards.

It wasn’t necessarily the surprise of seeing an artist who broke online performing on a televised award show; in these post-Justin Bieber days, that’s become more and more of an accepted thing. And it wasn’t seeing Psy paired with MC Hammer for a mash-up I remember one person describing as “the musical equivalent of Looper,” because mash-ups, too, have become common practice for awards shows.

No, I think it was the fact that Psy was performing on live national television in Korean — on a show called the American Music Awards — and the fact that the audience couldn’t understand the lyrics didn’t really matter. What mattered was the music, and the dancing, and Psy’s ridiculous pants — the very definition of a brand.

I didn’t watch the AMAs live — instead, I’m one of the hundreds of thousands who ended up watched the clip on YouTube. But that’s okay, because in the course of following the online video world last fall, I helped contribute to the original “Gangnam Style”‘s 1.5 billion views.

One reason for watching the video so many times (aside from genuinely enjoying it, at least in the early days) was my fascination with the lyrics. “Gangnam Style,” translated from the original Korean, is actually a sly anti-consumerism rant, specifically mocking young women who live cheaply on ramen so that they can afford expensive brand-name coffee.

It’s been a crazy 10 months since the original release of “Gangnam Style,” during which Psy has taken his time in launching an official follow-up, the boppy pop tune “Gentleman.” And watching “Gentleman,” it’s clear that Psy has taken the parts of “Gangnam Style” that connected with audiences, and discarded the rest.

What “Gentleman” replicates is the qualities that led “Gangnam Style” to go viral — a distinctive (and easy to replicate) dance move, bright colors, crazy wardrobe choices and Psy and his buddies goofing around on city streets. It’s just different enough from “Gangnam Style” to avoid feeling like a complete copycat, but recognizable from a thousand paces as Psy’s work.

The lyrics of “Gentleman,” translated, lack “Gangnam Style’s” complexity — the song seems to be a fairly straightforward tale:

Hey there
If I’m going to introduce myself
I’m a cool guy with courage, spirit and craziness
What you wanna hear, what you wanna do is me
Damn! Girl! You so freakin sexy!

Daring stuff.

But it’s hardly surprising that Psy went more generic this time, after two separate incidents: last December’s reveal that some of Psy’s earlier songs featured anti-American lyrics, and the more recent controversy over a potential single called “Assarabia”.

When you consider the fire he’s come under for even the slightest hint of controversy, Psy taking the least-risky path with this follow-up makes sense. And it’s hard to deny that Psy has given the people what they want: the video is closing in on 125 million views, in just four days online.

It’s disappointing to see an artist coasting, but fascinating to observe how Psy and his team are handling the challenge of viral success. “Gangnam Style” made $8 million just through YouTube last year.

“Gentleman” looks likely to continue this success, but to be seen as more than a one-hit wonder, Psy might have to develop his brand beyond the dropped-crotch pants.

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