THIS IS a tale of three songs, “Gangnam Style” included, spanning half a century, and what they say about how the world has changed, and what it means for the Philippines.
The first song comes from “Mary Poppins,” a Disney film released in 1964. The film was based on a series of books of the same title, first published in 1934, about an English nanny with magical powers. Mary Poppins would probably have remained limited to Britain and maybe the United States had it not been for the Disney film, a musical starring Julie Andrews, who sings throughout the film including a piece called “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Hey, I spelled that without checking, the word etched in my mind through the years. I still remember friends challenging each other to pronounce the tongue-twister or to spell out what seemed like the longest word in English. Actually it isn’t because it’s not officially accepted as a word, so you can’t use it in Scrabble.
It all shows that human languages aren’t just for communicating. We play with sounds and words out of fun. The “Mary Poppins” kilometric word was in fact supposed to be a word you say when there’s nothing to say: “Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious, if you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious.”
Let’s move on to 1972 where an Italian pop singer, Adriano Celentano, made waves with another song with a kilometric title “Prisencolinensinaincinsol.” To mark the 40th anniversary of the song, National Public Radio in the United States interviewed Celentano; he explained he was a fan of American pop music as well as slang, and improvised the song with words drawn from English, but which didn’t quite make sense. Sample lines: “Brrr chancing by we keep the cold war baby just can’t yet pinch yo whoa!” and “You’ve becomin’ obtuse and I’m prayin’ for not soul hobo hopin’ just to get along but hopin’ nothing.”
As with the “Mary Poppins” tongue-twister, it didn’t matter that this strange English-but-not-English song sung by an Italian didn’t make sense. The song was like those spaghetti westerns that were also popular around that time—cowboy-and-Indian films made in Italy.
“Prisen…” shows how English, especially American English, has crossed borders to capture the imagination of young people, in this case, in Europe. But because the pop song began in Italy, it didn’t spread too far, at least not beyond Europe.
Fast-forward 40 years later and we witness the phenomenon that is “Gangnam Style,” a Korean pop song uploaded in YouTube and has had 655,442,363 views as of the morning of Nov. 6, less than four months after it was first posted. That figure is the highest ever for YouTube.
“Gangnam Style” is perhaps the best example of what’s called postcolonial culture. While western cultures are recognized as having reconfigured many of the world’s societies, often for the worse, we recognize that today, former colonies can talk back, and can even take a stab at shaping global culture.
I know, I know, some of my readers are cringing, but Gangnam style and K-pop or Korean pop are culture, with a small letter “c”, and, like it or not, it has millions of followers scattered around the world, including kids in your household. When I first read about Gangnam, again on an American Internet site, that of National Public Radio, I asked my 6-year-old son if he knew about the song, and he gave me that “Hey, where have you been?” look. Of course he knew, and he quickly did a few Gangnam steps to prove it.
The title may be in English, and the song may have a sprinkling of English words, but most of it is in Korean. Yet even Filipino kids can sing parts of it, courtesy of MTV subtitles, without ever knowing that the song is a bit of satire about people in Gangnam, which is an upscale district in Seoul. As far as non-Koreans go, it’s catchy music, good to dance to. There are even videos posted on how to do the Gangnam dance. Check the one on businessinsider.com, with no less than the enigmatic performer, Psy, giving the first tip for dancing: Think like you’re riding a horse.
South Koreans are now going beyond cars and electronic appliances, and now packaging and marketing culture. They’ve been doing well with telenovelas and are now pushing K-pop. Those wacky videos weren’t put together in someone’s living room; these are products of a huge industry that does market research, that subjects its performers to intense training. What you see is the product of thousands of hours of planning and rehearsing, shooting and reshooting and post-production work, to achieve the few minutes of entertainment that makes even staid geriatric UP professors begin to wiggle their hips.
There’s massive marketing for domestic audiences: K-pop songs make their debut not on radio but on national TV. Not content with the domestic market, the K-pop producers looked overseas, and saw the opportunities presented by the Internet, YouTube in particular.
The Koreans didn’t just upload on YouTube, they knew they had to go for the jugular, figuring out which entertainment portals and writers in the United States were important. All it took were a few of these portals to endorse the “Gangnam Style” video and it went viral, spreading throughout the world and leading to more curiosity about Psy, “Gangnam Style” and K-pop.
Anything to learn from this tale of three songs? There are so many more opportunities today for nonwestern arts and culture to spread globally. We pride ourselves in being an intensely musical people, where even office staff and store clerks give unwanted performances while at work, yet we haven’t quite made it globally. We claim Jessica Sanchez and Bruno Mars as Filipino, but really, they’re American, and made it mainly into the American scene. Then there’s the recent case of Zendee Rose Tenerefe, who dared to come to Manila from her hometown General Santos, was video-ed doing karaoke in an SM Mall. Someone named Yuan Juan uploaded the video on YouTube, complete with the sounds of the mall, but it caught the attention of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and got Zendee to make a guest appearance on the show. But that was a few minutes of fame and we have yet to see what will come out of that. Her YouTube video has had some 2 million views.
On their own
Filipino musicians in the Philippines are pretty much left on their own, with no support from the government. The private sector’s floundering as well; I hear that our singers have given up on recordings, which are always being pirated, and have to live on gigs or live performances, where they will sell a few of their recordings.
The Koreans aren’t just noted for telenovelas and K-pop; quite a few are making it into the international classical music scene. To produce these world-class performers, such as Cecile Licad, we need to recognize the value of cultural industries, of being able to leave our cultural imprint, too, on the world, and having fun while doing it, Gangnam style.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.