Sean Carey

Will ‘Gangnam Style’ be a game-changer for the international music scene?

It would seem that the necessary ingredient for international pop music stardom (at least of now) is to include something familiar for English speakers. Perhaps, sega artists in Mauritius, who want to appeal to a wider public, should take note

— Sean Carey

It is impossible to ignore, because Gangnam Style by Korean pop sensation Psy, seems to be playing everywhere. I first became aware of it when I saw the Seoul rapper introduce Britney Spears and Ellen DeGeneres to the dance moves on The Ellen Show a couple of months back. Britney did okay, Ellen did better. The lesson? It’s probably better to wear flats rather than very high heels while performing dance moves which mimic riding a horse.

Last week Psy addressed the Oxford Union. “I was so desperate to get noticed,” he told his audience. “I stayed up for 30 nights to find that horse-riding dance. I tried every creature: elephant, monkey, kangaroo, snake. The kangaroo hopping was too slow, so we ended up imitating a horse.”

At the same time, the website of l’express featured a YouTube clip of Gangnam Style performed by a group of young Mauritians of diverse ethnicities at Le Caudan waterfront in the capital Port Louis. A young Sino-Mauritian man equipped with the requisite suit, bowtie and dark glasses did a pretty good imitation of Psy. It has had over 70,000 hits, which is a huge number by Mauritian standards.

There’s no doubt that Gangnam Style is a catchy pop tune, with even catchier dance moves. The official YouTube version, with over 716 million visits, is the second most popular in history. Now record executives from Universal Music Group, Psy’s record company, are talking up the prospects of other South Korean artists like the nine-strong girl group Girls’ Generation, who are popular not only in their home country but in other parts of the Far East. The calculation is that K-pop artists could be an international rather than just a regional success story.

It seems that new mobile technologies, especially smart phones, have created new markets in parts of the world which previously lacked a strong international pop music culture. Furthermore, the belief amongst many leading lights in the recording industry is that for the first time in history, the flow of popular music won’t just be from North America and Europe to other parts of the globe, but will move the other way as well. It’s no surprise then that the big music companies are scouring the world to find the next big thing. According to an article in The Independent, UK and US record executives are convinced that the “British charts will increasingly be filled with foreign-language hits from Asia and South America”.

If true, this will be good news for artists in emerging economies, who are by definition not part of the traditional North Atlantic pop music conveyor belt system. Nevertheless, having listened to Gangnam Style, as well as a number of other K-Pop artists like Girls’ Generation there is something that has been overlooked – that is, at least some of the lyrics, typically the hook line of the globally successful songs, are in English. Even Psy’s song is punctuated by “Eh, Sexy Lady oh oh oh oh” which seems to have set a trend. And to confirm it, while at the Oxford Union Psy revealed that his next single will feature a balance of Korean and English lyrics.

Therefore, it would seem that the necessary ingredient for international pop music stardom (at least of now) is to include something familiar for English speakers. Perhaps, sega artists in Mauritius, who want to appeal to a wider public, should take note.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

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