Monday, February 11, 2013

Global Style

image from
I was headed to dinner with my Dad and siblings, with one of the NOW CD’s in the player (what number are they up to now?  78?), when the song “Gangnam Style” filled the car.  My brother and sister have both memorized patches of lyrics and sang along wherever they could.  Even I played, doing a seated approximation of the now-ubiquitous dance.

If you don’t live on the Internet (and also don’t have cable or satellite or FM radio), “Gangnam Style” is an electro-pop hit by a Korean artist who goes by the name of Psy.  The song gained international fame when the YouTube video went viral last year.  In fact, the term viral may not sufficiently encompass what happened.  The music video for “Gangnam Style” is the first YouTube video ever to reach one billion views.  To put that into perspective (and to throw some cool numbers at you in an effort to bring some originality to this post instead of just rewriting a Wikipedia article), if you played the video, which is four minutes, thirteen seconds in length, one billion times without pausing, it would take more than eight thousand years*.  That’s eight thousand years human society as a whole has lost to a single video.

But what have we gained?

It’s not a new sensation for a song that’s popular in one country to spread across the globe.  Even the language barrier has been trampled before.  Will Smith told Ellen Degeneres about kids in Japan who’d learned the words to the Fresh Prince theme song, even though they couldn't understand them.  Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” went international, but was actually translated into several languages.  It’s not unheard of for English hits to become popular with non-English-speaking cultures.  But this is the first time that the language barrier has really been crossed in this direction.  At least, it’s the first time it’s happened on this scale.  I still remember a time when the Black Eyed Peas were a decent hip-hop group, and appreciated their international flavor (their tracks “Bebot” and “the Apl Song” are almost entirely in Filipino).

Now, given that “Gangnam Style” was, in fact, record-breaking, we could say that this is the first time any song has become so internationally known.  The aforementioned scale may just need to be recalibrated after a hit like this one.

I think it’s great.  It’s amazing that YouTube, and, by extension, the Internet has made popular culture into one humming conglomerate consciousness.

Globalization has been going on ever since worldwide trade became a reality.  We see McDonald’s in Hungary (har har) and Audis on Route 66.  But it’s hard to ship an idea overseas on a barge.  For that, you need the speed provided by the Internet.  For many pop stars, fame is a flash in the pan, and if you blink you’ll miss it.  Now, the only things holding us back are popup ads and buffering spinners.  We can share concepts and culture across the world via webcams and wifi.

And when “Gangnam Style” exploded onto the pop scene, the whole world danced at the same time.

*Feel free to check my math.  It could totally be wrong.  I did it on my computer’s calculator late at night in a moment of hypnagogic inspiration.


  1. Math checks out. 8017 years and some change.

  2. Looking up "hypnagogic" - meanwhile, enjoyed reading this. Blown away by Psy's energy. We've come a long way since the Minuette and the Waltz. Note to Psy - try decaf.

  3. Nooo I hate the fact that stupidity has no frontiers anymore :(

    Seriously i cannot understand this worldwide 'phenomenon'? I hate to think that there are that many suckers in the world ;-)

  4. @Coco... I'd say that's fair. "Gangnam Style" isn't exactly the newest stroke of musical genius. But I don't think it was ever about the "music." Complicated and intellectual things have a harder time taking off because people are lazy and the less work it takes to understand something the faster it will spread. Popular culture works this way. But once the simple, catchy stuff starts spreading like wildfire, surely it won't be much longer before we start instantly sharing the more refined cultural gems?