Thursday, 27 September 2012

Currently listening to: Gangnam Style

Of course I am, and I've been doing so for some weeks now. To suddenly find it heading towards the UK number one is quite an odd feeling. I guess it really is time I wrote about it.

For a start, like a lot of people, I didn't expect something like this to be the first piece of K-pop to make it big in the West. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it makes perfect sense. It may be harmless and silly, but that's exactly what is needed to crack the UK: something that isn't threatening. The UK music market, which prides itself on constantly reinventing itself, struggles with taking foreign artists seriously. I blame the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a large multi-national, multi-lingual contest in which countries from across Europe do battle with songs, and the UK usually does quite badly.

When the Eurovision is on, it inspires a lot of fancy dress parties and somewhat arch cynicism from the British public who refuse to take it seriously. And this is the only time where British people get to hear pop music in foreign languages. As such, it is easy for your average Brit to dismiss foreign pop music as somehow fake. As if they're trying to be like us, but not quite getting it.

And now Psy has overcome that remarkably high barrier with his song Gangnam Style. And let's not underestimate how hard it is for foreign bands to crack the UK market. I remember in the late 1990s when three bands from France were popular at the same time (Daft Punk, Air and St Germain) a magazine ran an article about how amazing it was. And this was France. Our next-door neighbours. Why should this have been surprising? But it was.

So now Gangnam Style has broken one last barrier. It could be argued that, in the UK, Psy has ticked off the last ethnic minority who didn't have some kind of pop presence. Whites and blacks, we all know about. Hispanic artists became commonplace after Shakira and Enrique Iglesias and the Indian sub-continent has been represented by Billy Sagoo, Cornershop, etc etc. Only the Asia Pacific region remained.

Now this has gone, it'll no longer be weird to like stuff from Korea (and, by extension, Japan, China etc) as perhaps it once was. Only three weeks ago, I was at a party and tried to explain to someone what was happening in Korean music. If I had the same conversation now, it'd be very different.

It has been argued that Gangnam Style is nothing more than a Korean Macarena, but if you think about it, both Macarena and Buena Vista Social Club persuaded the mono-lingual Brits to listen to things in Spanish. After some years, it paved the way for more chart success.

Now that we have the internet, I don't expect the gap between Psy and the next Korean breakthrough artist to be as long as it was after Macarena (about five years, I think) but there are a lot of parallels. Psy is certainly introducing western audiences to some of the visual excesses of K-pop videos which will smooth things over for the next wave of artists.

It won't be all easy from now on. Already, Gangnam Style has become a lazy way to categorise Korean music. When people shouted at Tiger JK to perform Gangnam Style at a recent concert, he replied with a vicious outburst, and quite right too. It reminded me of the Vaudeville/Music Hall days when black artists (or, more accurately, white artists with blacked-up faces) were expected to perform songs from a strict repertoire.

But this reaction from Tiger JK's audience is, I fear, almost inevitable. Until K-pop gets a wider fan base, it'll be defined solely by those few songs that break through to mass appeal. This'll be frustrating for those artists who don't fall into the same category, and frustrating for fans who will have to smile grimly time after time and explain that, actually, there's more to K-pop than that one song.

Even if it is a very good song.


  1. There have been news about the Gangnamstyle on Swedish radio/TV as well. I hope this isn't just a small news notice among many that will pass.
    I hope that both the Japanese and Korean music/dramas will be brought to attention in Sweden (Europe/Western countries).

  2. Haha, we just talked about this very same issue a couple of days ago before your post

  3. Well, now it has made it to number one in the UK (and number 11 in Sweden, according to I suppose a little bit of history has been made.

    I was trying to work out what Psy did right, and I noticed on the BBC that his single has been out for about a month. In other words, it was released just as the video started to catch on. Compare that to SNSD, who released "The Boys" in the west about a month after the video went big on YouTube.

  4. It was also #1 on iTunes Peru and possibly #1 on YouTube Peru too. We don't really have other forms of charts, and I haven't listened to the radio, so I have no idea if they've been playing it there too.