Number Ones - Psy 'Gangnam Style'
Who's saying what
'Gangnam Style' by Psy is the new #1 single in Australia, knocking off 'Battle Scars' by Guy Sebastian.
'Battle Scars' was #1 for six weeks, and drops to #2 this week. 'Gangnam Style' is Psy's first entry to the Australian charts, though he has a long history of chart success in South Korea, with a list of #1 singles since 2001. Co-written by Park Jae-Sang (i.e., Psy) and Yoo Gun-Hyung, the song was produced by Yang Hyun-Suk, the head of YG Entertainment, Psy's record company. According to Gavin Ryan at Noise11, it's the first non-English-speaking single to reach #1 since 'The Ketchup Song' by Los Ketchup in 2002.So, 'Gangnam Style', eh? It's most likely the first number one single to be a meme before it was a number one single. The other two songs that have gone 'viral' this year are, of course, 'Call Me Maybe' by Carly Rae Jepsen and 'Somebody That I Used To Know' by Gotye. But these were #1 singles before they were memes - when I wrote about 'Call Me Maybe' in April this year, during the first week it spent at #1, I knew it was catchy, but I had no idea that a man in a bikini could mime the song on Chatroulette and get 30 million views on YouTube. I mean, the official video for the song didn't have 10 million views at that point. Similarly, when I wrote about 'Somebody That I Used To Know' over a year ago, it did not occur to me that Gotye memes would become a thing, that this little Aussie song would become a worldwide hit, or that five people called Walk of the Earth could cover the song using one guitar and get 136 million views on YouTube. These songs truly went viral. But when I wrote about them, the first week they'd gone #1 in Australia, they weren't viral yet. They were just songs that a bunch of people liked. They hadn't become so omnipresent that you could mention them and pretty much anyone with an internet connection would know exactly what you were talking about.
'Gangnam Style', on the other hand, was already a meme well before it got to #1 here in Australia. It's already as omnipresent as 'Call Me Maybe'. I mean, there's already a Wikipedia page titled 'Gangnam Style in Popular Culture', listing the various ways it has been used, from crowds at sporting events doing the dance, to flash mobs, to an endless list of parodies. The video for the original version of 'Gangnam Style' went up on YouTube on July 15th. It came to prominence in Western media a couple of weeks later, following a Reddit post on July 28th, a tweet about it from American autotune artist T-Pain on July 30th, which was retweeted thousands of times, and a post on pop culture blog Gawker on July 30th (I first saw the video on July 31st, shown to me by a student).
It was well known enough by mid-August that venerable American magazine The Atlantic found it necessary to post a "what does it all mean?" thinkpiece on August 23rd, explaining the sly cultural critique apparently embedded in the song. It had well and truly become viral by the time Psy taught Ellen Degeneres and Britney Spears to do the 'horsey dance' on September 10th. It's so omnipresent now that when pop culture blog The Daily What posted a link to a Youtube titled 'Gangnam Minus Gangnam Of The Day' a couple of days ago, their comment was that 'it seems now that we've moved beyond parodies and imitation for Gangnam Style, descending into bizarre, postmodern art'. You know that a song has truly gone viral when people start making "bizarre, postmodern art" about it.And all of this happened before the song got to #1 in Australia. Ashley Jetters argued in the Atlantic that 'Call Me Maybe' was the first time that a meme had turned into a #1 hit, helped along by footage of Justin Bieber singing along to it with his friends. Previous meme songs - 'The Bed Intruder Song' or 'Friday' by Rebecca Black had breached the lower reaches of the charts in the US, but never made it to #10, let alone #1.
'Call Me Maybe' had certainly gotten a leg up from how Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber's and Carly Rae Jepsen's manager) used his knowledge and access to propel the song into the charts, bypassing the usual channels - chart radio. 'Call Me Maybe', of course, is so damn catchy that it only needed a bit of a leg-up before it was going to get stuck in people's heads. But it wasn't an internet-famous-meme at this point; this was just some clever marketing, targeted at Bieber fans, mostly. In contrast, social media and YouTube covers are not a means to a musical end for Psy, the way that they are for Carly Rae Jepsen. Social media and YouTube covers are the whole point of the song, as far as most people are concerned. One of Psy's cannier moves has apparently been to waive copyright on 'Gangnam Style' so that anybody can use the music and the video as they like. Most of the social media response to 'Call Me Maybe' is basically different ways to say 'this song is really catchy'. Once 'Call Me Maybe' truly became a famous meme, the meme was largely specifically about how catchy it was. 'Gangnam Style' is different. The social media response to 'Gangnam Style' is largely about absurdity, about the surrealism of the song and the video, not really about music for music's sake. 'Gangnam Style' has become an event. It's a piece of shared cultural currency which can be taken as known in a world which is increasingly nicheified. It doesn't matter whether you like Breaking Bad or Big Bang Theory, you know about 'Gangnam Style'. It doesn't matter whether you like Justin Bieber or Animal Collective, you know about 'Gangnam Style'. 'Gangnam Style' is more meme than song.
Let's be clear: 'Gangnam Style' ain't rocket surgery. It's basically a cross between the Macarena and LMFAO. It's lowest common denominator stuff in a way that 'Call Me Maybe' and 'Somebody That I Used To Know' are not. This would be more obvious if it weren't for the Korean words in the song which make it sound exotic. LMFAO, bless them, tried very hard to create a new dance craze, with their 'Melbourne shuffle' on 'Party Rock Anthem' and their penis wiggling on 'Sexy And I Know It'. LMFAO certainly know their way around a catchy tune, but their dance moves didn't quite catch on in the same way.
But 'Gangnam Style' 'succeeded' where LMFAO failed (perhaps prompting LMFAO's apparent intention to 'spend time on other projects'). At a wedding last week, I saw people pulling out those horsey dance moves on the dancefloor. I have no doubt that, in 5 years, 50-year-old aunts and uncles of the bride will be pulling out the horsey dance moves to 'Gangnam Style' at weddings, the same way they pull out the Macarena at weddings today.
Underneath the meme, however, is a song that's fascinating in a bunch of ways despite its lowest common denominator-ness. 'Gangnam Style' is certainly very influenced by LMFAO's 'Sexy And I Know It'. Both songs use basslines which are either made using the venerable Roland TB-303 bassline synthesiser, or using software emulations of the TB-303 (watch this video of a dude playing with the TB-303 to see how it can make that sort of squelchy sound). Both songs are influenced by 90s Eurotrash dance music - both 'Gangnam Style' and 'Sexy And I Know It' feature typically trashy synth sounds and beats, the kind of thing you might hear on something like 'No Limit' by 2 Unlimited. And of course, both songs feature the song building to a climax before a silence, followed by the hook which happens to be the title - '...I'm sexy and I know it' vs '...oppa Gangnam style'.
In a way, it's fascinating that a South Korean rapper has taken a song written by Motown progeny like LMFAO, and mutated it to his own purposes. South Korea has a fairly restrictive censorship regime, which has banned thousands of songs for under-18s (and so effectively prevented them from being played on radio). According to Wikipedia's 'censorship in South Korea' page, a song that "stimulates sex[ual] desire or [is] sexually explicit to youth", "urges violence or crime to youth", or "glamorizes violence such as rape, and drugs" is almost certainly going to be banned. Songs banned include Lady Gaga's 'Just Dance' and 'Bad Romance', thus meaning that the South Korean government banned under-18s from seeing Lady Gaga in concert when she toured earlier this year, to howls of protest. The official Gaon singles charts is currently largely composed of government approved K-Pop, with two or three songs by fairly anodyne North American artists - the inevitable 'Call Me Maybe' and some Maroon 5. Interestingly, while 'Party Rock Anthem' was a #1 single in South Korea, 'Sexy And I Know It' did not enter the charts, presumably because of censorship - I mean, if you're going to censor Lady Gaga's 'Just Dance', you're probably going to censor a song that features a penis wiggling dance. I'm quite curious about whether Psy knew about how 'Sexy And I Know It' was a worldwide hit, and whether 'Gangnam Style' was his attempt to give the South Korean public what they very likely wanted, or whether the similarity to 'Sexy And I Know It' was a deliberate anti-authoritarian kind of thing, whether he was deliberately trying to thumb his nose at the censors.
Another subtext to 'Gangnam Style' is the rise in the popularity of K-Pop in the Western world in the last couple of years or so. Here in Australia, SBS has a Saturday morning music show called SBS Popasia, which plays a lot of videos by (government approved) K-Pop stars like Girls' Generation and Jay Park. Perhaps on the back of SBS Popasia's playlist and a large Korean population in Sydney, there was a well-attended K-Pop festival in November 2011, at Sydney's ANZ Stadium (which holds 80,000 people). And it's not just Korean ex-pats in Sydney who are digging K-Pop. Indie mavens Pitchfork featured an 'introduction to Korean wave' article in late 2011, and Spin in March 2012 had a fascinating article about the K-Pop factory. K-Pop tunes are regularly reviewed by pop critics at The Singles Jukebox.
The fascination with K-Pop in the west partly comes from its exoticism, but mostly it's that the music is sweet - with all that Korean government censorship, there's no chance for K-Pop to try to be genuinely dangerous. So, for example, the music is about love, rather than sex, and in this day and age, this is sort of refreshing. Additionally, the factory line mentality of K-Pop also has many of the good (and bad) things about Motown, which is why there's a certain symmetry in Psy using music by LMFAO, who are related to Motown's Berry Gordy. The factory line mentality and difficulties in translation means that, at least to a Western audience, there's much less of a cult of personality about K-Pop than about current commercial pop in America. Western audiences see the girls in, say, Girls Generation as being interchangeable, whereas the likes of Katy Perry are specifically marketed as having a distinctive style and personality. And there's a certain way that knowing the personality of the singer changes how you interpret a song, and this knowledge is absent in regards to K-Pop for Western audiences.
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