Gangnam Style goes gangbusters

September 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

This much is confirmed. The Korean Wave has landed in New Zealand. I don’t just mean it in that it is doing the rounds at the Korean clubs and restaurants in Auckland. That much is a given and has been for years. No, the moment K Pop announced itself here was at the rugby of all places, and the song that hit the ignition switch was the massive global hit, Gangnam Style.

If you haven’t heard it or seen the video – which is saying something going by the nearly 300 million plus views on YouTube – Gangnam Style is a one-hit disco inferno that has been burning a hole in the internet since July and astonishingly, it is entirely in Korean language, except for one English phrase.

Perhaps it is not so astonishing that Asia would eventually create a breakout global pop hit and, given the strength and vibrancy of the Korean entertainment industry, that it would be a Korean artist to crack that code. I can’t believe that when Gangnam Style hit the Web that the artist – the Korean hip hop and dance music artist PSY – and the record company money men would have predicted its runaway success.

But the word runaway doesn’t seem to do it justice. The song is more than a runaway. It is an escaped convict of a tune and it is precedent setting becoming the first K-pop song to go to number one on iTunes, to be the most ‘liked’ song on YouTube and now it is knocking on the door of getting into the top ten of most watched YouTube videos which at this rate could be sometime next week.

For the record, Justin Beiber’s Baby tops the list with over 770 million views. In tenth place is Eminem’s Not Afraid with over 350 million views. And somewhere in between are Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, Shakira, LFMAO and Charlie Bit My Finger – Again! You can find the list here.

Already, Gangnam Style is the most popular K-pop song of all time. K-pop stands for Korean popular music. It is the South Korean iteration of various styles of Asian popular music as characterised by nationality and language. There’s J-pop from Japan and C-pop for Chinese popular music. C-pop is further broken down into Cantopop for Cantonese pop music (largely out of Hong Kong) and Mandopop (Mandarin language popular songs out of Taiwan and the mainland).

Wikipedia tells me that Mandopop is most popular in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan and Cantopop has a fan base mainly in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and southern China, especially in the Cantonese speaking province of Guangdong.

J-pop on the other hand has a significant Western following through the country’s successful cultural exports of video games and anime where J-pop songs are often integral to the rest of the product. Anyone who has seen Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo and had its theme song (translated for the English version of the film) become an earworm for days will know exactly what I mean.

K-pop on the other hand has a below the radar fan base in many Western countries, apparently driven by an explosion in South Korean popular culture in the 1990s that included cinema, television as well as music. This soft power surge in Korean creativity extends beyond Asia and into many European, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries where dubbed versions of South Korean television soap operas and historical dramas are popular.

But in the West, that fan base appears to be a niche one. Who knew that K-pop has fan bases in Poland, Germany and France?

And just when it appeared that the Korean Wave was running out of steam, along comes an unlikely looking flag bearer. He’s a portly, girl-obsessed singer with a campy dancing style who has become a global phenomenon. It is impossible to say if PSY’s Gangnam Style has blown K-pop sky high in terms of permanent awareness but for a while, millions of people around the world are doing the horsey dance, even the gangs of Bangkok.

Here’s the clue that alerted me to Gangnam Style’s big time arrival in New Zealand – a tweet and a video taken at a provincial rugby match at Auckland’s Eden Park that shows spectators dancing to K-pop while the speakers blare out. It is all so Gangnam Style.


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