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Contagious culture

Updated: 2012-12-27 14:53

A viral hit from South Korea is a rude wake-up call to aspiring Chinese artists and entertainers that cultural products need spontaneity and diversity.

The immense popularity of Gangnam Style is puzzling to many Chinese, especially those who search for social significance in minutiae. As I count myself as one of the group, here is my two cents about the strange phenomenon of a South Korean rapper who is neither matinee idol, nor Pavarotti or Nureyev reincarnate, but whose number has taken the world by storm.

Gangnam Style is no high art. Yes, it has a catchy tune and dance moves so childish everyone can imitate. Had it used three octaves and polished choreography only trained dancers can pull off, it would never have gained such a wide audience.

Now, China produces its own equivalents of surprise hits that can be explained only by their sheer simplicity in melody or absurdity in style. In the late 1990s, there was My Heart Is Too Soft; the new century saw Mice Love Rice, and most recently it was dance versions of folk-style songs by the duo Phoenix Legend. They are not critical darlings, but they invariably click with the broad public for their endless hummability.

As a matter of fact, it is fairly difficult for a critic to say they are a fad and will vanish before you know it. Such is their penetration into the society that everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon, including politicians who want to be seen as members of the people. Populism dictates that if you don't go along with the mass and what they enjoy, you are isolating yourself into an enclave of cynics and elites who believe themselves to be better than the rest of us.

The Western world certainly has its share of goofy songs accompanied by equally goofy dance steps. In 1994, the US was swept by a Spanish dance song called Macarena. Like Gangnam Style, it was aided by the music video, which featured very simple hand movements. All of a sudden, everyone on TV was doing the same move and humming the same tune.

The funny thing is, the foreign languages in the lyrics do not in any way hamper their prairie-fire dissemination in English-speaking countries. Rather, they form part of the charm. From where I can see, most people simply took it as gibberish and never bothered to find out what the songs were about. The music and the video were enough for them to relate to and partake in what turned out to be collective fun rides.

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