Psy at Harvard: My Lyrics Don’t Matter
Harvard hasn’t played host to “so cool” an event (their words) since 1838 when Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered an “unorthodox lecture.”
That was, until Korean pop star Psy showed up to talk about his career and viral music video.
“Psy at Harvard, now how cool is that?” said Carter J. Eckert, Yoon Se Young Professor of Korean History, donning a pair of sunglasses before introducing Psy to students from Harvard University’s Korea Institute on Thursday. “[Korean] Pop is as much a part of the modern Korean history that I teach as it is about the government and democratization.”
The “Gangnam Style” star spoke to more than 1,000 attendees at the school’s Memorial Church, where they got to personally engage with him during a question and answer session. The occasion marked 14 years since Psy returned to the area, where he was once a student. “This is really weird isn’t it?,” Psy said to the audience. “After 14 years, who knew I [would come] back to make a speech at Harvard? Isn’t life beautiful?”
Alexander Zahlten, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, introduced and commended Psy for using the Internet to break through the noise online and become an international household name for “Gangnam Style” and accompanying dance moves. Psy’s video was the first to have more than one billion views on YouTube.
“It was him that had this commercial success … and since it was Psy, and he has a model and career that is not that easy to replicate in a factory type model, there are a lot of executives in Korea scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do next,” he said, before side-stepping the podium to “finally introduce” the guest of honor.
Zahlten noted that you could “feel the energy in the room” as anticipation grew as eager students held out their smartphones to snap photos of Psy strutting down the carpet toward the front of the church.
During his talk, Psy, who lived in Boston from 1996 until 2000 and noted that he was “really poor” at academics at the time, focused on what his life was like prior to becoming an internet celebrity, and producing a musical dance sequence that even the President of the United States has embraced.
“I’m not here to make [an] academic or educational [speech], but to tell you about my experience. And as you all know, the past seven or eight months … it is a very special experience,” he told attendees.
The Korean-born artist said family tradition usually requires the son to take over the family business, something he didn’t want to do—much to his parents’ disappointment. “I had to find a way to avoid the comment telling me [I have to take over the business],” he said. “I started to explain to them I wanted to be a bigger person, and I wanted to be a better person … I [wanted] to study abroad.”
Once he graduated from high school, Psy applied to Boston University, and came to the U.S. to attend the School of Management. But when he got here, he didn’t know “how to say a single word in English” except for “taxi,” “bus,” and “diamond.”
“We all know that kind of word,” said Psy, before talking about his run-in with a stomach bug that left him with diarrhea and led to an awkward conversation with a CVS clerk on his second day in the country. “I learned English by that [experience].”
After giving students some background into how his YouTube video went from just a few views to setting records, constantly getting Tweeted by celebrities like Britney Spears and rapper T-Payne, a modest Psy, who hardly removed his sunglasses, discussed the phenomenon of people sharing his music, but not knowing what the lyrics meant.
“Isn’t that amazing? I mean, you don’t know the lyrics, or a single word of Korean, but I’m so glad, because when I do the performance, the crowd doesn’t know what the lyrics [are] about. But they look so happy,” he said. “There was something beyond the language. Something beyond language is music. Music makes everyone united … I think it’s fun. All the people around the world, we like fun.”
He said people chose him as a “product” not because he is handsome or muscular, but merely because he offered them “fun.”
Before his speech, Psy had the chance to walk around the campus, where he met with Drew Faust, the University’s President.