Third edition

Gangnam Style – Decoding Transculturalism in Pop Music

In this article, I wish to demonstrate a comprehensive overview of how “Gangnam Style” reflects certain phenomena of Transculturalism. One thing I find most intriguing in music is precisely the ‘invisibility’ which gives immense space of imagination. I do agree that with visual aids, certain messages can be notably transported to an individual audience, but it may also undermine the musicality.

© Marcus Yeung

© Marcus Yeung

Wong Tsz│wongtsz@gmail.com

The YouTube 2012 super-hit “Gangnam Style” brings new perspectives of how transculturalism can be interpreted in the context of the modern pop music industry. To understand transculturalism in music, one must first differentiate different models of musical exchange. Ethnomusicologist Krister Malm summarised musical exchange into four categories, which musicians could be directly engaged with[1]:

1. Cultural exchange: a phenomenon which allows newly emerging musical expressions during the process. This often occurs on a person-to-person level.

2. Cultural dominance: the process when a powerful society or group within a society imposes its values on another in a formally organised fashion.

3. Cultural imperialism: occurs as cultural dominance, often increased by the transfer of money and resources from the dominated to the dominating cultural group.

4. Transculturalism in music: a result of the growing transnational corporations and global marketing network in music industry. Transculturalism involves the merging of different elements from different kinds of music taking place in an industrial environment. Transcultural music is therefore an industrial product without roots in any specific ethnic group.

“Gangnam Style”, along with other pop music videos (MVs) available online, gives a valuable overview of the current development of the pop music industry in a transcultural context. What can we tell from “Gangnam Style” in the scope of Transculturalism in music? I note a few aspects which may serve as analytical perspectives:

1. Music for free. The conventional revenue of the music industry relies on music sales; the listening or viewing of MVs online at no cost, especially on YouTube, has proven that the phenomenon of sharing music through a mature social media worldwide has changed the shape of the music industry, where the music industry may eventually profit from the bottom-up popularity spread by individual internet users. (Further reading: Christopher Cayari, “The YouTube Effect: How YouTube Has Provided New Ways to Consume, Create, and Share Music”[2].)

2. Beyond Lyrics. With visual context, more than singing along, the audience may also ‘dance along’; the ‘horse dance’ for instance proves this by the immense quantity of “Gangnam Style” replicas on YouTube produced by individuals. The ‘horse dance’ may immediately correlate viewers into the context of “Gangnam Style”. Although dancing along with music in an unified gesture is not new in the history of pop music, (one obvious example would be the Village People’s “YMCA”)[3], the main difference I note here is that the ‘horse dance’ has no direct connotation to the lyrics but, on the contrary, it associates with other visual contents in the music video. One may find Roland Barthes’s Semiology theory useful in decoding the meanings of signs; ‘horse dance’ could be taken as once example. At the beginning of the MV (at 0:18), PSY walks into a stable full of horses and start waving his wrists in crossed arms, making a direct connotation to horse riding. (Further reading: Paulo Emanuel Novais Guimarães, “What did Barthes mean by ‘semiotics’? How useful is his account for social theory and for accounts of ideology?”[4].)

3. Three-minute music. The common ABA or ABACA[5] format of popular music can be well-observed in “Gangnam Style”. The 3:39 duration coincides with the common length of pop songs, or so called three-minute music. I note that the attention span of the audience is no longer limited to an audio media, but to a visual one as well. Academic research on the same issue has indicated the cause and effect relationship between the popularisation of pop music and its influence on teenagers’ attention spans, which is also around three minutes long[6].

4. Overcoming the language gap. “Gangnam Style” is composed mostly of Korean lyrics, with very little use of English. The role of the lyrics in the song is thus less prominent to the non-Korean audience yet, on the visual level, the body language (dance), together with the easy to remember melody, compensates the language gap. Similar examples of such a module, especially among non-English language pop songs which gained huge popularity worldwide, are:

  • “The Ketchup Song” (“Aserejé” in Spanish)[7], 3:29, ABA form, also with similar hand movements and key phrase “Aserejé, ja deje tejebe tude jebere…”
  •  “Dschinghis Khan”[8], 3:30, ABA form, similar hand movements (a different horse dance), and key phrases “Hu! Ha! Hu! Ha…” and “Dsching… Dsching… Dschinghis Khan! He, Reiter; ho, Leute; he, Reiter, immer weiter…”
  • “Macarena”[9], 3:50, ABA form, a repetitive set of body movements which coincides with the key phrase “Heeeeey Macarena!”

I identify here three key elements among the given examples which gained success worldwide: 1) easy to remember lyrics (key phrase) and melody, 2) simple and memorisable body language, 3) dance melody.

5. Gangnam Styles. Gangnam Style was quickly reinterpreted in many different languages and derivative works: from lip-dup to various translations and adaptations of the lyrics. Most videos are produced by ordinary internet users, although the quality of such videos varies, it is one noticeable trend that by re-creating and instantly sharing such derivative works, pop music videos no longer serve as a one-way communication channel in the context of social media: the involvement and reaction of audiences to certain MVs may give new perspectives of understanding the reception of pop culture in a wider scope. A pop song which gained success in one market could therefore be quickly transformed and gain success in others. German pop song “Dschinghis Khan”, for example, was translated into 10 different languages in Europe and Asia and gained worldwide success; which is more feasible when the copyright of a work is controlled by a big record company. (Further reading: Gill, Phillipa, Arlitt, Martin; Li, Zongpeng; Mahanti, Anirban, “YouTube Traffic Characterization: A View From the Edge”[10].)

6. Music as a product vs. The star as a product. When an artist (or the music industry) finds more profit and opportunities in commercial settings, one may also argue that the artist (the star) is also a commercial product or, at least, a representation of certain products/brands (such as Madonna’s Pepsi commercial in 1989[11]). This phenomenon is not entirely new in the pop music industry: long since Elvis Presley, record companies find it extremely profitable to cast singers in films, usually low-budget productions, and embed their music into the film[12]. How such representation could eventually effect music production itself is another topic worth exploring.

When we talk about transculturalism in music, it is always tempting for composers, musicians, and music producers to look for new elements in other cultures. The presence of transculturalism is particularly noticeable in visual media; when MVs are mostly available in pop music nowadays, the effect of transculturalism is more understandable than in music without visual elements. How and why certain visual images were adopted in the “Gangnam Style” MV is, however, a different issue; for example, why the ‘horse dance’? It might be something to do with the horse racing culture in the Gangnam area, one of the richest districts of Seoul where people can afford such an extravagant hobby, but it is highly doubtful how far such an embedded meaning could be decoded by an audience without any background knowledge of the particular culture. Perhaps this brings a call of more awareness of indigenous culture in music, especially in the dimension of social media.

Despite the limited textual and musical analysis in this article, as I mainly focused on Transculturalism, I wish to demonstrate a comprehensive overview of how “Gangnam Style” reflects certain phenomena. One thing I find most intriguing in music is precisely the ‘invisibility’ which gives immense space of imagination. I do agree that with visual aids, certain messages can be notably transported to an individual audience, but it may also undermine the musicality. From “Gangnam Style”, I find a lot of similarity when I compare it to some earlier examples of MVs. If one believes that music is the common language of mankind, in modern times where music is getting more and more ‘visual’ and less merely ‘audio’, more reproducible and sharable, I ask: are we closer to ‘music as a common language’, or is it actually ‘music videos as a common language’?


[1] Krister Malm, “Music on the Move: Traditions and Mass Media,” Ethnomusicology 37,3 (1993): 340-343.

[2]  Christopher Cayari, “The YouTube Effect: How YouTube Has Provided New Ways to Consume, Create, and Share Music”, International Journal of Education & the Arts, Volume 12 Number 6 (2011). http://www.ijea.org/v12n6/v12n6.pdf.

[3]  “Village People Set “YMCA” World Record at the Sun Bowl,” [n.d.], video clip, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAYHQWz3i7I.

[4]  Paulo Emanuel Novais Guimarães, “What did Barthes mean by ‘semiotics’? How useful is his account for social theory and for accounts of ideology?”, IDEATE: the Undergraduate Journal of Sociology, University of Essex 8 (2012): 1-7, available online: http://www.essex.ac.uk/sociology/documents/pdf/ug_journal/vol8/2012sc301_pauloguimar%C3%A3es.pdf.

[5] On different forms of music please refer to “Music Theory Blog”, available online: http://musictheoryblog.blogspot.de/2007/02/musical-form.html.

[6] Michael Z. Newman investigated the attention span of pop songs on teenagers in “New media, young audiences and discourses of attention: from Sesame Street to ‘snack culture'”, Media Culture Society  32 (2010): 581,  available online: http://mcs.sagepub.com/content/32/4/581.

[7] “Ketchup song original and full,” [n.d.], video clip, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5D5N8TgBFw.

[8]  “Eurovision 1979 Germany Dschinghis Khan Dschinghis Khan HQ SUBTITLED,” [n.d.], video clip, YouTube,  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAEUrp2V4ss.

[9]  “Los Del Mar – Macarena (Live 40°),” [n.d.], video clip, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41DyPamC1_M.

[10]  Gill, Phillipa, Arlitt, Martin; Li, Zongpeng; Mahanti, Anirban, “YouTube Traffic Characterization: A View From the Edge”, Technical Reports, HP Labs, HPL-2007-119 (2007), available online: http://www.hpl.hp.com/techreports/2007/HPL-2007-119.pdf.

[11]  “MADONNA – LIKE A PRAYER PEPSI COMMERCIAL,” [n.d.], video clip, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8qtsUaoVak.

[12]  Elvis Presley made 31 movies between 1956 to 1969, other notable singers in movie includes: The Beatles – ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964), David Bowie – ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (1976), Madonna – ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (1985), Deborah Harry – ‘Hairspray’ (1988), Whitney Houston – ‘Bodyguard’ (1992). All these films featured singers’ song(s), and eventually boosted the sale of records.

Wong Tsz new profile Wong Tsz, Contributing Writer

Wong Tsz, from Hong Kong, moved to Europe for MA Euroculture (2010-12) after obtaining his BA in Language and Translation. Currently, he’s a PhD student in Musicology under DFG Research Group ‘Expert Cultures from the 12th to the 16th Century’. Wong Tsz played in various orchestras in Hong Kong and in Europe, including the Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra, Open University of Hong Kong Orchestra, Göttingen University Orchestra, Groningen Students’ Orchestra MIRA, and currently in Academic Orchestra Göttingen AOV. He’s not only keen on playing music but is actively engaged in academic research. His Master’s thesis gives an in-depth study of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under the scope of Orientalism theory by Edward Said. His current PhD project ‘Matteo Ricci in East West Music Exchange’ gives a detailed analysis to trace the early models of music exchange between China and Europe in 16th century.

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4 replies »

  1. Thank you Jenny! I have also read your article; good to know that someone shares the same interest : ) Cheers! Wong Tsz

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