Gangnam Style, a song by the Korean rap artist, Psy, is not only a modern age viral phenomenon,
it has managed to transcend pop culture to gain something of an iconic status. It has swept the worlds of sport, art, politics and television commercials and has, in the process, become the universal symbol of free expression, joy and peace.
At the recent cricket T20 World Cup final in Sri Lanka, when the West Indian team won, Chris Gayle, along with the rest of the team, bust out the bizarre ‘person riding a horse’ dance moves, globally recognised because of the Gangnam Style video. Not too far away in China, Ai Weiwei, a well known artist and dissident, released his own subversive version of Gangnam Style, which has since been banned there.
Ai Weiwei used this censorship as an opportunity to discuss the issue of freedom of expression in his country.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, hailed the song as a symbol of peace and declared that it had the potential to end world conflicts. He also valiantly attempted to learn the signature moves from Psy himself, when the rapper visited the UN headquarters.
With the world smouldering in the heat of Gangnam fever, it is not surprising that advertisers in Pakistan also gave in to the song’s thumping composition and Psy’s crazy moves. Zong, one of the largest telecommunications networks in the country, took the plunge and made an ad, called ‘Zong style’. Some argue that it was a disastrous step, while others see a silver lining in that.
The American presidential election was also ‘Gangnam styled’, with parodies of the song such as ‘Obama style’ and ‘Romney style’ dominating YouTube and driving voters into a frenzy. On the other side of the pond, in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, also succumbed to the Gangnam moves – though very discreetly, according to the papers. From the posh Eaton boys to middle-aged women in the gym, everyone is sashaying to Psy’s tune.
So what makes Gangnam Style so versatile and why has it become such a phenomenon?
The lyrics are simple, or so it seems from the translations and explanations on the internet. The music is catchy and the sort that starts to play in your head before you fully wake up in the morning.
It isn’t different from a lot of songs out there except for the simple fact that it has had over 530 million views on YouTube.
A decade ago, Macarena enjoyed the same status, but back then, YouTube wasn’t much of a platform. More recently there have been songs, such as the South Indian, Kolaveri that enjoyed similar viral success, but these never gained popularity in the more serious realms of politics and social activism, as Psy’s Gangnam Style has.
What gives Gangnam Style the winning edge over other songs is its clever combination of a punchy tune combined with silly and outlandish dance moves. The chorus line, Oppan Gangnam Style is simple yet versatile and can be moulded to fit any statement, language or sentiment. The tune is upbeat, jaunty and emotionally neutral and that makes it a great canvas for copycats to impose their own story on it. Gangnam Style has become an internet phenomenon, not only because of what it is, but also because of its potential to be anything else.
I am not entirely convinced that the song merits the kind of fame that it has received but then again, popular culture knows no logic. For now, we all know that Psy has got the winning combination and everyone is riding the Gangnam wave with him.
Sheherzad Kaleem is a documentary filmmaker based in Dubai. firstname.lastname@example.org