Korean pop star Psy gives his first ‘American style’ performance

Fans crowded for a glimpse of Psy’s first U.S. performance in Rockefeller Plaza at the Today Show. Photo by Alex Jung.

Park Jae-Sang, better known by his stage name Psy, delivered a caffeinated jolt to a crowd of early-rising American fans—some of whom started lining up on Thursday night—with his first U.S. performance of “Gangnam Style” at the Today Show’s summer concert series yesterday morning.

Psy has succeeded where many of his South Korean predecessors have failed: piercing the U.S. market. Since Psy released “Gangnam Style,” he has achieved numerous milestones: over 170 million views on Youtube, a cameo appearance at the VMAs, number one on the iTunes music video chart, and perhaps most importantly, a contract with Scott Samuel “Scooter” Braun, the mastermind behind that other viral sensation, Justin Bieber.

So what exactly are people so excited about?

“I think it’s just a mix of his appearance and his ridiculousness that people love,” said Chaz Kellogg, a 23-year-old who recently moved from Maryland. He woke up at 5 a.m. to see Psy live. “It’s really easy to like and it’s an addictive dance move.”

Psy has already taught the dance, which he himself calls “cheesy,” to Britney Spears and Ellen DeGeneres on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

That’s how Fran Lamden, 66, from Scottsdale, Ariz., first learned about him.

“He’s that Conga man,” laughed Lamden. “He’s very entertaining.”

Korean pop music, called K-pop for shorthand, regularly dominates music charts across Asia, and most recently has been gaining a foothold in the U.S. For American fans, K-pop offers something different from American pop.

“It’s a nice break from American music,” said Lashauna Campbell, a 20-year-old student at Hunter College. “It’s not all about being in the club and popping bottles and ridiculousness.”

Campbell brought along her mother, Sylvia Davis, 54, who started watching Korean dramas, even ordering the Korean drama cable package, on account of her daughter’s enthusiasm.

“A lot of other ethnicities are into Korean culture,” said Davis. “It’s not vulgar. There’s a message.”

Despite multiple attempts the Korean music industry still hadn’t discovered a way into the American market until Psy.

“I like that it’s Psy and not one of the boy bands,” said Campbell. “Right now it’s all about groups so it’s kind of shocking he’s become this Internet sensation.”

“I think it’s sort of hilarious that Psy is the breakout artist in K-Pop, given how many factory-produced pretty acts have tried and failed,” wrote Frances Cha, Seoul City Editor of CNNGo, in an email. “The outrageousness of his manner and the dance are the keys to his success overseas I think, also the fact that he simply looks funny and apparently that’s the same in every culture.”

Part of Psy’s success may lie in the fact that he didn’t try. Whereas the Wonder Girls made an English version of their Korean hit single, “Nobody” and went on tour with the Jonas Brothers in a concerted effort to drum up popularity in the U.S., Psy only intended his video for Korean audiences, filling his video with references they would understand like party buses, saunas, and cameo appearances by comedians Yoo Jae-Suk and Noh Hong-Chul.

Cher Lim and Irene Na, 27, from Fort Lee, NJ, wear custom-made “Gangnam Style” t-shirts from their boutique, Against All Odds. Photo by Alex Jung

“He doesn’t worry about what other people think,” said Cher Lim, 27, from Fort Lee, New Jersey, speaking in Korean. “He just does his own thing.”

The question many fans are wondering is whether Psy can turn this Internet hit into a viable career stateside.

“He’s got the experience, talent, and energy,” said Omar Mirza, 27, from Midtown who started listening to K-pop a little over a year ago. “With Scooter [Braun] behind him, he can do it.”

“It’ll be on the management,” said Campbell. “Justin Bieber was an Internet sensation too. If people are open to it, I think he could succeed.”

Others, like Cha, are not so sure.

“I think this might be a one-hit wonder that would be terribly difficult to follow up,” wrote Cha.

For now, K-pop fans are enjoying the success of their most unlikely hero.