Gangnam Style: The Evolution of Popular Culture

Click the video, if you have not yet see this after 462 252 104 (and counting) views on YouTube. Otherwise proceed to text below.

It has affected South Korean tourism and the stock values of software firms. Even F1 drivers are doing it.

No doubt about it, Gangnam style has been the biggest popular culture phenomenon in 2012.

What it tells about the current state of popular culture?

1. There is always demand for a catchy pop song.
You can debate about the artistic and musical merits of PSY, but you cannot deny that structurally it is typical and effective pop song. All the elements of the perfect summer jam are there: catchy chorus, shout-outs to sexy ladies and the signature dance which you can perform even after few pints. Gangnam Style is just the Macarena for 2012. Or Ketchup Song, Lambada… You catch my drift.

This brings us also to the important point about YouTube. The Internet might have revolutionized the distribution and the traditional business model of the music. It has not as much changed people´s taste for music. Although major record labels are struggling, there is still huge demand for mainstream music. If you watch top 10 of the most watched music videos in YouTube, they are all from major label artists. PSY was huge in South Korea before Gangnam style and hardly a rookie, having released his first album already in 2001.

Gangnam style would probably be not as big hit without YouTube, but it would have been hit nevertheless. You will always have gatekeepers in popular culture. The gatekeepers just might not be the same ones as before.

2. The cultural focus shifts to Asia
If you watch any new Hollywood movie, you are more than likely to see one (or all) of the following things:

a) One or more of the characters are Asian-origin (i.e. wife of Bruce Willis is Chinese in The Looper)
b) There are cultural references to Asia (i.e. Chinese gambling dens in Premium Rush)
c) The film takes place in certain Asian country (i.e. Bourne Legacy scenes in Manila)

The main reason for this is naturally the rising importance of Asian countries as the target market for Hollywood movies. As a movie producer, you have to take Asian countries in account to maximize profits and to secure investments in the future.

This cultural exchange is not unilateral. As the western companies concentrate more on Asia to keep afloat, especially the western teenagers consume more Asian culture to find their own thing and to differentiate from their predecessors.

Peculiar thing happened few years back in Finland. The teenagers started to dig everything Japanese. Whether it was J-Pop, Manga, Anime or the weird costumes. The cultural glue was the interest to everything Japanese. The same person might go to see heavy metal and dance act on same week, as long it was Japanese.

This goes against of my traditional view of how subcultures emerge. As a teenager I consumed popular culture that was majorly from USA. However it was more about certain genres than geographical areas.

K-Pop phenomenon was already making major waves before Gangnam style and something big was bound to happen. Gangnam style was just the most western-friendly, uniquely odd and the catchiest song to break into global mainstream. As a western listener you do not necessarily know where Gangnam is, or what oppa means but you can nevertheless get into singing the chorus and doing the horse-dance.

3. Ready for remix, build for parody, made for mash-up.

There used to be app for that. Nowadays there is Gangnam Style –parody for that. Even in North Korea. Here is the Singaporean version:

With current digital tools and democratization of technology, it is easier to become active culture participant. Parody is the highest form of flattery. If it has not been remixed, it does not exist. Gangnam style is the perfect song to make mash-ups on. As the money from music business now comes from different sources than traditional record sales, you have to do more than just good songs. You have to create miniature social movements, where people can participate.

Also our view of idols has evolved. When before the idol was someone you could not reach, nowadays you can just tweet to your favorite artist. And as record sales decline, the probability is just getting higher that the idol will actually respond as well. Reflecting to that PSY, who is self-proclaimed “fat father of two”, might just be the perfect idol type for the new century. At least compared to the polished superhumans of traditional broadcast era.

Will PSY be able to match the success of Gangnam style?
Most likely not.
Has he already left a permanent mark in popular culture?
Most likely.

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