The music video of Gangnam Style surpassed two billion hits on YouTube this week. To put that in perspective, that’s more than one-fourth of the world’s population and time-wise collectively, more than 16,000 hours of time spent by mankind watching this. This video positively flies in the face of conventional wisdom followed by record companies, of investing in hot-bodied, seductive young female singers to grab eyeballs. Psy (short for Psycho) is rotund, wearing mismatched clothes doing a buffoonish dance around horse stables
to a catchy but ordinary tune. And he’s beaten Beyonce hands down.
In the arts, music especially, it’s one of the world’s enduring mysteries why some tracks (mostly average ones) make people go crazy, while better ones fade into obscurity. You would have to be an exceptionally dour human being not to smile at Psy’s infectious lack of inhibition and his enthusiastic moves. But who could have imagined Gangnam Style would become a global sensation, mocked, parodied and endlessly imitated, making the singer the most recognised South Korean in the world? It’s not so exceptional. It’s just that all the other music videos these days follow a tired, mind-numbing sameness of gyrating divas and neon lights, and in keeping with the age of distraction, visual changes every split second. You can’t tell them apart. Gangnam Style is a scream in comparison, reveling in its bumbling and old-fashioned imperfections.
We, the generation who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s were really defined by newly acquired cable TV, and music videos. I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic (if a little quaint and uncool) when I think about how Wham! and Madonna video hits ruled my life. Those days music videos weren’t about scantily clad dancers, they had a real story. They were often disjointed and bizarre, the visuals didn’t match the beats, but in just three or four minutes they created a lasting impression. Take Madonna’s Material Girl. The lyrics went — They can beg and they can plead but they can’t see the light (that’s right). ‘Coz the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right. The video was similarly provocative with Madonna dressed like Marilyn Monroe from Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend. In between, the parallel story of a young actor being wooed by a Hollywood director falls in place beautifully. Contrary to the lyrics, she goes on a date with him thinking he’s penniless. A most satisfying conclusion.
I don’t know when the angst ridden romantic music story changed to hardcore sweaty thumping and all music video content started blurring. Our lot grew up watching Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open, the video a dazzling and cautionary fable on the perils of stardom. The sweeping and unforgettable power ballad November Rain is based on a short story Without You about a rock star grieving over the death of a girlfriend. The video packs in drug abuse, suicide and countless metaphors for tragedy, befitting the epic nature of the track. Gangnam Style with its comic capers does indeed deserve its two billion views. But I hope this generation doesn’t miss out on those gritty and flawed, and slightly dated narratives — that was entertainment too, for a different time.