Last week, millions of teenage American girls were horrified to discover that PSY’s “Gangnam Style” had beaten out Justin Bieber’s “Baby” for Most Watched YouTube Video of All Time, a distinction that actually holds a lot more cultural clout these days than any old Billboard chart. Hits are a direct interface with consumers, likely ones, anyway, and from a marketing standpoint this swings weight somewhere in the vicinity of Michael Jackson’s actually epic battle with the Eagles for the rights to Biggest Album of All Time. If you think that’s hyperbole, then you don’t realize the import: An estimated 10 million people A DAY, six months after the video went online, are still watching this same video, all around the world. More importantly, while the Beeb’s video built up its hits over a period of nearly three years, PSY’s done it in far less time. Look!
No doubt those girls are panic-stricken at the thought of a chubby, married, South Korean in his 30s invading their tween dreams, doing his weird human dressage in his Bill Haley sport coat. But that bizarre post-irony is part of the takeover; in the best, dare we even say it, rock and roll tradition, Mr. Park Jae-sang is shoving his weird alter ego right in their dewy, wet, upturned faces. And it’s worked. He’s been on the Today Show and SNL, yes, but also at the U.N. He gave a speech at London’s Oxford Debating Society. Madonna and Hammer have both given their seal of approval to him with live “Gangnam” mash-ups. And yet, many semi-reputable entertainment media outlets — not coincidentally based in America — have dismissed this revolution, trashing the worldwide smash as a LMFAO ripoff, treating PSY as if he were Ricky Martin and “Gangnam” as if it were the Macarena.
That’s because these media outlets are stuffed with empty heads who have no concept of pop history; their cultural timeline, like their audience’s, goes back about 10-15 years, tops. And they may be right about his durability, as far his 15 minutes of fame are concerned, because it’s gonna be impossible to top this. It may be worth nothing that the EP (the EP!) from which PSY’s world-conqueror was taken has also spun off several other videos, which have made about 1/100 less of an impression. But his triumph, massive and fleeting as it may prove to be, was no fluke; it was painstakingly crafted from a series of pop-culture sources, all of which have largely been dismissed by Western media as silly, and all of which he’s expertly combined, suggesting he could be in this for the long run:
2. Bass-heavy “party rap.” Not necessarily ironic, but definitely simple.
3. K-pop, that Korean offshoot of shiny, boy-bandish Asian pop.
Can I be serious? You may be saying. I am. And so is Park. He is, after all, a guy who studied at the prestigious Berklee school of music (but left as soon as he had enough knowledge to start his career), one who cites Freddie Mercury, not Ricky Martin, as his main inspiration, an obsessive who actually worked a whole month of nights in order to find just the right new dance moves to spotlight in his new video. He’s been at this ten years; he’s no overnight, manufactured American Idol sensation, unless manufacturing yourself counts.
Then, of course, there’s the weird factor, the intangible that’s hardest to fake, that personality thing that makes it all click. You know: the little boy poplocking poolside, the weird Asian cowboy in boxers shaking it in the parking-garage elevator, the random explosions, the strange shot of PSY looking like an old lady in the sauna. These things are there to provoke, shock, and mock, but he’s also infused them with a ridiculous amount of energy, demanding, as all good superstars do, that you pay attention. My first impression of the video was that someone outside America (okay, besides Robbie Williams) had figured out how to act as infectiously silly yet oddly empowering as an American celebrity. And it’s true: as his popularity grew, so did the outcries of Asian pop interests who felt his music and attitude weren’t culturally pure enough. PSY, also like a real superstar, has knocked down barriers everywhere he goes, just by sticking to his own script. Why is he wearing the Bill Haley jacket? Because he wants to. This is where the haters screaming about LMFAO don’t get it — those guys are far too obvious about their pandering, right down to their instantly dated name and their desire to parody pop culture while ruling it. PSY, even by K-Pop standards, is legitimately outrageous. He’s working hard, but he’s not sweating.
Look, here’s a video of his from two years ago. He’s wearing something that makes no sense, he’s freeing workers from everyday drudgery, he’s turning from a nerd into a superstar, he’s got the hook, he’s winding it up:
You may decry the success of “Gangnam” by attempting to demote it from song status entirely; a friend of mine wondered why this YouTube clip was suddenly being played on the radio, as if it were a real song or something. And she had a point: you have to go back half a century to find another American pop hit this big sung in a foreign language. That would be Kyu Sakamoto’s original version of “Sukiyaki,” a song which had nothing to do with the food, but was so renamed because sukiyaki was one of the few Asian references Americans would get. (EDIT: Later that same year, the Singing Nun’s “Dominique,” sung only in French, also went to #1.) “Gangnam” definitely crosses language barriers, but it does so unapologetically. If you don’t know that it’s more or less PSY parodying South Korean ballers while proving he’s cooler than all of them, tough shit. This is the revolution: world pop is now here. Which is why, even if his massive hit is the last we hear from him, Park will have ignited a cultural revolution that was waiting to happen.
Finally, it’s important to realize that “Gangnam” is not just a song people can listen to without knowing the words; it’s also a well-constructed little party starter. The Macarena was pretty lightweight as a dance number, Ricky Martin’s latin rhumba was fakey, crafted in large part by Bon Jovi songwriters, but PSY brings weight to his stupidity. Listen to the way he goes to the bridge, winds it up over and over again until it gets insane, then finally allows it to go off by deploying a screeching silence, then rewarding you with the hook. In English, I might add. Again, he’s no dummy. Glee wishes, okay?
You might be inclined to think “Gangnam Style” doesn’t have the compositional qualities of a “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or a “Stayin’ Alive” or a “Billie Jean” or even a “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” other cultural signifiers of similar import. But guess what? No one thought that about those songs at the time, either. Inspired junk like this works from the bottom up, which is how you know it’s real. Yeah, he spent a lot more time on the beat than the melody, but that’s the genre he’s working in — I listened to the top 20 Euro hits about a month ago on YouTube, and there were a few good things in there — Robbie, of course, a pretty decent Alicia Keys track. But those songs were swamped by a lot of boring trash Eurodisco that would have sounded tired fifteen years ago. “Gangnam” — as a song, not just a viral video — stuck out like, well, like a chubby Korean in a Bill Haley sportcoat. The whole package is there. He’s come by this honestly.
Still, I realize haters gonna hate, and that it’s hard for some of you to accept our new pop overlords, especially since they don’t even have the decency to speak English. So I’ve gone ahead and translated the lyrics to “Gangnam Style” for you, just so that you can get the feel for what it really means in this particular pop-culture moment:
Back in the day, the people listened to the Beatles
Bee Gees, Nirvana, Queen, Madonna, MC Hammer
Now the cultural paradigm has shifted from the West
Asian culture and EDM are taking over
Now we know just how to act like your A-listers
And we don’t even have to sing the words in total English
All we need is a hook, a big fat beat and sexy women
I’m just weird enough to make you wonder what you’re watching
I worked so hard, yeah, on crafting my image
And dance-craze moves (hey!)
and post-ironic sensibilities (hey!)
I’m like the history of pop culture but with a really irresistible beat
I cannot lose (hey!)
You must submit (hey!)
And I will destroy traditional notions of your Western-dominated celebrity scene —
…I even have a hook.
Hey, sexy lady.