In the hallowed chamber of the Oxford Union, where once reverberated the voices of Gladstone, Salisbury and Sir Winston Churchill, it was again a tale of blood, toil, tears and sweat.
“I stayed up for 30 nights to find that horse riding dance,” expounded the now truly global Korean rapper, Psy, to a packed hall of enraptured undergrads (and curiously, Chris Eubank).
“I tried not just horse. I tried every creature. Elephant, monkey, kangaroo, snake, falling leaves, sun and moon. In Korea, my last five dance moves, they were so famous. This was number six. There was a lot of pressure.”
Tickets to listen to Psy, real name Park Jae-sang, and perhaps see the dance first hand, were in such demand they had to be assigned by ballot - a method not required when former presidential candidate John McCain spoke earlier this year, nor when Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama or Michael Jackson did.
The students, many of whom were dressed in white tie for the occasion (at 2pm) and had admitted to not knowing what to expect, were pleasantly surprised by tales from the life of Psy, famous in Korea for many years before his song “Gangnam Style” and its many parodies propelled him to international fame.
“My only interest when I was young was to be attractive to the girls,” he said, his sunglasses still on. “I know I’m not that good looking, so I had to try other things. Silly voice, silly dancing. Laughing and joking can be handsome.”
The extraordinary growth of “Gangnam Style” to the second most watched and the most “liked” video in YouTube history has surprised Psy more than anyone. He said he first noticed the phenomenon when comments started appearing underneath it in lots of different languages.
“Suddenly I thought what is going on? There were English comments, and Asian people were fighting over my nationality. Is he Chinese? Is he Korean? Is he Japanese? Then BBC, CNN are making report of me. I receive phone call from Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun. I told him, ‘If you’re Justin Bieber’s manager, I’m Justin Bieber’. I made him email me pictures to prove who he was. I had to apologise.”
His arrival at the Oxford Union was similarly fortuitous. John Seung-yoon Lee is it’s first East Asian President, and happens to be, like Psy, from Gangnam in Seoul. “I wanted to bring someone to speak here from my country,” he said. “It would only really be Ban Ki-moon or Psy.”
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It was the committee members who naturally, at the end, granted themselves the privilege of doing the famous horse riding dance with him.
It wasn’t always easy, for Psy, being a laugher and a joker, and growing up in a very conservative society like South Korea. “Korea is very strict, but I am not moral. Artists on the stage, their job is to be a clown. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Make them happy. Make them sad. I think that’s all it is. But this philosophy is not suitable for a Korea artist. I have got into a lot of bad situations. People in Korea don’t have a high expectation of Psy’s morals. I’ve had to be forgiven many times.”
Psy, who is 34, and married with young twin daughters, is living, “a dream and a nightmare. Gangnam Style is a dream. Trying to beat it is a nightmare.” He is working on his new single, which will be out in February, and have a few more English lyrics.
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