Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Psy’s virtual song and video had an impact on our real, physical expectations. It shows that no matter what people think of its substance, “Gangam Style” is powerful. And I think that power actually points to hope for the future—not of music, but of our global culture."

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In April, the Korean pop-star sensation Psy, known for “Gangam Style,” visited Harvard to talk in Memorial Church. He was introduced by a couple of professors. For a while, they talked about globalizing Korean pop culture. The hall, in the meantime, fluctuated between a state of academic-induced sleep and nervous excitement, while the pop-star waited outside.

Just as the restlessness was reaching a peak, the professor called him in. The hall stood. Then it surprisingly fell into a perplexing yet eerie silence. Psy was short and plump but looked just as he did in the videos. Except he had a bewildered look on his face while walking down the long aisle. He was used to applause, I guess.

During the event, I couldn’t stop thinking about that quiet. For a long time, I couldn’t explain it.
But then over the summer, I went to Mongolia. I heard his next song “Gentlemen” blasted at every store front. I saw whole restaurants built after a “Gangam” theme. And now, after months of reflection on the truly global phenomenon, I think I know the reason behind the silence on that spring night in Memorial Church: the audience expected the music to follow him. None of us knew Psy, except for the minutes (in my case, hours) we had seen him on a screen, accompanied by music, words we didn’t know, and images we couldn’t figure out. For some reason, I think we all expected to hear the church blast its organ bass, and he would dance through the aisle, in the ridiculous motion of riding a horse, while we stood to his sides like the stabled horses from the video. But he wasn’t dancing and there was no music. Instead of horses, we all ended up looking like asses.

Psy’s virtual song and video had an impact on our real, physical expectations. It shows that no matter what people think of its substance, “Gangam Style” is powerful. And I think that power actually points to hope for the future—not of music, but of our global culture.

Recently, Billie Joe Armstrong—lead singer of Green Day—called Psy “the herpes of music.” Coming from a guy with a brilliantly subtle taste for satire—for example, his song “American Idiot”—this description is pretty good. Psy is viral. He spreads wherever the internet can take him.
But there is one part of the metaphor I don’t get: I like Psy, and I don’t like herpes. Let me rephrase that. I like Psy, and I don’t think I’d like herpes.

I see what Armstrong is getting at though. Music, after all, is a cultural affair. True maestros put together notes in a harmony of sound. Psy puts together a bunch of dancers, a couple of explosions, and a candid toilet scene in a well-edited sequence.

But unlike Armstrong, the internet values what Psy produced. This can be easily seen through a convenient tool—view counts. The more something is seen online, the more valuable it is. So the question becomes why I and everyone who shared his video—now almost at two billion views—value it so highly.

The answer is easy: The internet likes ridiculousness. And boobs.

On day four of the government shutdown, 550 liked and 212 retweeted an article entitled “Government shutdown: John Boehner to allies: I want a fiscal deal” on Politico. The same day, 79 thousand liked and three thousand retweeted the article “Tea Party Leaders Announce Support For Deal In Exchange For Malia Obama” from the Onion. The second article even got over seven hundred Google Plus(es) or circle-shares or…whatever.

Ridiculousness is why “nut shots” and vines go viral. It’s why Macklemore’s most popular song online is “Thrift Shop” rather than “Same Love” or “Otherside.” It’s why saying you are “feeling fluffy” on Facebook is far less awkward than posting a deeply-aware comment about your recent break up. As strange as it is, the internet values the ridiculous. And boobs.

Psy described it perfectly in his off-the-cuff speech at Harvard. A Berklee graduate, he had the guts to admit it wasn’t the music that allowed him to leap across cultural barriers: “I think it’s fun. The word ‘fun.’ All the people around the world, we like fun,” he said. He tried to cheer up people during the recession in Korea with his music. The result was he made a fun, ridiculous video that was appreciated the world over. It also probably didn’t hurt that he had larger boobs than the average male pop star.

I’ve never really appreciated good music. But I like fun. And on some level, it is comforting to know that much of the world does too. I don’t know what the fox says or what Psy ever says. But as the internet blends cultural divides, at least I know that someone from a country I know very little about also probably enjoys being ridiculous, once in a while.

It’s funny that it took a man in a tux, dancing on a bus, on a boat, on a sidewalk, on a tennis court, on a merry-go-round, on a...walking into Memorial Church, for a few brief, silent moments, for me to realize it. But on the path to unity, the first step is a side-shuffle, with an outwards-thrusted hip and crossed arms, in the Gangnam style. Our new lines of communication can let us have fun together, despite our differences.

Cue music.

Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.


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