By NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- It took just 36 minutes into the opening of the Winter Games for the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium to fill with a sound it seems just about everyone has heard at least once.
As the U.S. team poured into the stadium, Gangnam Style came pouring out of the speakers, the unforgettable opening strains from South Korean artist Psy that didn't so much emerge as explode in 2012.
South Koreans long ago grew weary of what is now an aging tune, first released more than five years ago. The Olympics, too, has its own official music, the torch-relay tune Let Everyone Shine.
But that song sounds as gauzy as its title, and no other South Korean track can match the power of Gangnam Style to get people out of their seats. So, the funny-sounding song with the funny-looking dance has become an unofficial anthem of sorts at these Winter Olympics.
The DJ at hockey games plays it to amp up the crowd. Dutch brass band Kleintje Pils - the name means "small beer" - serenaded longtrack speed skaters with its bouncy refrain. At the short-track arena, one German athlete shimmied out such a competent rendition of its moves that he hogged the centre-ice screens for much of the song, as the 12,000-strong audience roared and horsedanced along.
Shake the reins, bounce the legs, twirl the lasso. It's hard to find a person here, or anywhere, who doesn't at least recognize the moves.
"As a DJ, I have to say, the song that gets you the best audience response is Gangnam Style," said Park Han-jin, who goes by the turntable name Bagagee Viphex13.
"The Gangnam Style effect really is amazing. It ties the world together."
Gangnam Style stopped being a mere pop riff some time around the moment it became a cultural relic on the order of the Macarena or Informer. It has been credited with boosting South Korean tourism, praised for raising the country's global profile, probed for meaning by academics - one scholarly article is titled Psy-Zing up the Mainstreaming of 'Gangnam Style': Embracing Asian Masculinity as Neo-Minstrelsy? - and, now, thanked for lightening the mood at an Olympics preceded by months of fear over nuclear weapons and missile tests.
"Everything was tense. It was about North Korea being there. It was about Mike Pence being very stoic - and then this party anthem just pops up and all of a sudden, viewers around the world snapped out of it. It was like, 'Oh, yeah, this could get fun,'" said Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a K-pop music export agency.
The Olympics, in turn, have delivered a fresh boost to the tune, which has seen a spike in daily viewership to levels not seen in three years, according to data provided by YouTube.
Psy, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, had no "had no desire to ever go into the U.S., not even a notion that he would be accepted or gain any kind of interest," says Kyu C. Lee, a movie producer and entertainment manager who sent Psy to the United States in 2012, and is among the people most closely linked to the song's global spread. In fact, when Lee told Psy that a famous American talent representative wanted the song, "he thought I was lying to him."
That conversation took place shortly after one of the more fateful days in Internet history, when Psy and YG Entertainment, his agency, uploaded the music video for Gangnam Style. It was July 15, 2012, mid-way through the summer of Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe. Psy, whose blunt and unconventional early work had earned him the ire of South Korean authorities, was just doing what artists do, putting his work online and "not thinking that it's going to go worldwide," Lee said in an interview. "Not one of Psy's songs had ever travelled outside of Korea."
Two weeks later, however, Lee's phone rang.
On the line from the United States was Scooter Braun, the entertainment industry power broker renowned for representing Justin Bieber.
The night before, the wife of Braun's close business associate had chanced upon a music video before bed that made her laugh. She told her husband, who told Braun, who watched and "thought it was incredibly funny and reached out to me," Lee said.
"He said, 'hey, I want to buy the rights to the song,'" saying it might make for an entertaining parody with Mr. Bieber.
That was July 30. By Sept. 2, Psy had signed a deal with Braun, after flying to Los Angeles to meet in person. Nine days later, Psy was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show teaching his horse dance to Britney Spears. By the week of Oct. 6, Gangnam Style had reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
"He became a world star," Lee said. "It was super quick."
Gangnam Style was the mostviewed video on YouTube for five years, ceding that spot only last July. It is still played hundreds of thousands of times a day.
"It kind of makes sense that Psy is the soundtrack of the Olympics," said Michael Hurt, a scholar of local culture at the University of Seoul.
Though other South Korean groups manufacture their own hits, they were the "team passing the ball and getting it down the court. Psy is the one who Michael Jordan slam dunked it," Hurt said.
"He gave K-pop legitimacy in the minds of many people who dismissed it, including in the Korean government."
By 2016, the K-pop industry had grown to a $6.2-billion industry - and plenty of non-Psy music is being pumped into the Olympics. At the Gangneung Ice Arena, which holds short track and figure skating, organizers have brought in acts such as hip-hop group Dynamic Duo and punk rockers No Brain in addition to Park, the DJ. It's a deliberate effort "to show that Korean culture has a lot of variety," said Yi Eunkyong, who manages entertainment at the arena. They've actually limited how much Psy they play. "Actually, we are really sick of it," Yi said, laughing.
Indeed, Gangnam Style - a satirical song about a wealthy district of Seoul, sung by a rotund man prancing like a horse - might sound like an odd Olympic anthem.
Lee disagrees. "The hardest thing with the Olympics is that you need to find common ground, to bring people together from all different walks of life," he said.
What better than a silly song everyone knows?
With reporting by Eunice Kim
Fans watch figure skating action at Gangneung Ice Arena on Feb. 12. The arena has limited how much Psy they play, instead opting to feature other South Korean artists.
ROBERT CIANFLONE/GETTY IMAGES