A penitent Psy brings ‘Gangnam Style’ to Washington

South Korean singer Psy performed his hit “Gangnam Style” at TNT’s “Christmas in Washington” special. (The Washington Post)

He made it. Fresh off the tarmac from Minneapolis. Or was it Miami? They blur together. Definitely someplace where “Gangnam Style” is every bit as inescapable as it is everywhere else.

Psy, the 34-year-old global pop tsunami from South Korea, is here to sing at “Christmas in Washington,” Sunday’s annual televised charity concert at the National Building Museum. The first family has attended the gig for the past 30 Decembers. The president sits front and center. This requires the artists to carol with their hearts thrumming in their throats.

Psy’s heart might pound a little faster. He’s performing for President Obama just 50-odd hours after news spread across the Internet that he sang graphic, anti-American lyrics at a 2004 protest concert.

But backstage, Psy seems supremely calm. In warm, measured tones, he describes his first visit to Washington as “an honor.” He deeply regrets those words he sang all those years ago. And if this weekend’s media spasm ends up crashing his stateside stardom even faster than it was built? “I deserve it,” he says.

But first, he will perform a surreal act of contrition: He will dance across a poinsettia-dotted stage as if racing a phantom thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby.

Singer Diana Ross performs classic Christmas songs at TNT’s “Christmas in Washington” special. (The Washington Post)

Since the video for “Gangnam Style” first sprouted on YouTube on July 15, it has set records, capturing more than 917 million views. (If arithmetic isn’t your forte, that’s just 83 million shy of a cool billion.) The clip features Psy rapping in Korean over a juicy, vroom-vroom bass line, galloping in place, imaginary lasso twirling over his inky-slick do.

There was something instantly, undeniably, universally magnetic about all of that giddy-upping, but Psy didn’t materialize on YouTube out of thin air.

Born Park Jae-sang, he came to the States in 1996 to study business at Boston University, and then music at Berklee College of Music. He flew home to Seoul without a degree in either, launched a solo career in 2001 and eventually became a star of South Korea’s K-Pop explosion.

Surrounded by pop heartthrobs with more generous DNA, he stood out. “Gangnam Style” reflects that. Its lyrics poke fun at the culture of Seoul’s Gangnam District, where trendy young movers and shakers possess all the style and grace that Psy purportedly doesn’t.

After the video bloomed on YouTube, Psy was snapped up by Scooter Braun, the music-biz whiz kid who also signed a young Justin Bieber. (He brought the Biebs to “Christmas in Washington” in 2009 and 2011.) More recently, Psy dueted with Madonna at Madison Square Garden and with Hammer on the American Music Awards. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently requested a meeting. “He mentioned to the press that he feels jealous [of] me because he became the second [most] famous Korean,” Psy says backstage, his hair ungreased in a mushroomy pouf. “It was a proud moment.”

Two hours after he spoke, Psy would perform for the president, another proud moment — and in light of Friday’s news, a surprising one. (The White House emphasized it had no part in arranging the concert lineup. The president refrained from mentioning Psy’s name in his closing remarks but did shake his hand.)

In 2002, Psy punctuated a performance by smashing a model of a U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The gesture was a response to an accident in which a U.S. military vehicle struck and killed two teenage girls outside of Seoul. In 2004, he performed “Dear American,” a song by South Korean metal band N.E.X.T. that called for the killing of U.S. soldiers and their families.

“There was huge sorrow all over the country,” Psy says of that time, when outrage over the U.S. military presence in South Korea was hot and widespread. “Explain and express about the sorrow . . . I thought that’s kind of part of my job . . . But the specific words that I used, it was too much.”

He has more perspective today. He’s since become a husband, a father of twin girls, and has even served in the South Korean military. “After that eight, nine years, I have been changed a lot.”

With fresh controversy bubbling beneath his feet, he says he’s more concerned with forgiveness than his American pop future.

“If it’s gonna hurt my career or not, that’s not important,” Psy says. “The most important thing is that as a human being, I really, fully regret the using of [those] kinds of words.”

Seats, everyone. Various invited wonk folk. Veep Biden. The Obamas. They laugh at host Conan O’Brien’s zingers and clap politely after carols from soul great Diana Ross, pop singer Demi Lovato and “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery.

Psy strides out toward the end of the program, sporting a red sequined sweater, crooning about chestnuts and Jack Frost’s nose-nipping.

This is a wink-wink fake-out, of course. The speakers promptly erupt with the squiggly bass frequencies everyone wants to hear. Psy dutifully hops on his invisible steed and trots to a tweaked refrain: “Oppan Christmas style!”

It’s a huge room, and every nook of it fills with giddy, gushy, holly, jolly applause. Psy throws a thumbs-up and silently mouths a “Thank you.”

“Christmas in Washington” airs on TNT on Dec. 21 at 8 p.m.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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