The Macarena of K-Pop ready to batter down doors to the West


IT’S ALL GONE Gangnam Style. The song, by K-Pop rapper Psy, will be top of all known singles charts at the end of this week. More importantly, it’s a commercial battering ram for breaking down the door of the Western music market to South Korean K-Pop.

The “absurdly catchy” Gangnam Style has now become one of the most watched/liked videos ever on YouTube. Once you’ve heard the song you’ll probably come down more on the side of absurd rather than catchy. Gangnam Style makes Macarena sound like something by Radiohead.

One hesitates to use the term “cultural” in relation to its effect, but already the North Korean government has put up its own version of Gangnam Style, which pokes mocking fun at a South Korean presidential candidate. And, in California, 14 lifeguards were fired for contravening a “social media policy” after putting up their own version of the song, Lifeguard Style, on YouTube. The case of the “El Monte 14” has attracted considerable attention.

The buffoonish nature of Psy, the song’s euro-trash dance-pop sound, and the video’s much imitated “horse-dance” moves (“you have to pretend like the lower part of your body is riding an invisible horse” explains Psy himself) have all helped make Gangnam Style the most talked about, most imitated and most listened to song of the year.

After gangnam, the deluge. All eyes are on a small army of K-Pop acts that, having conquered the Asian market, are now up out of the blocks for their European and US assault. Already leading figures in the music world are portfolio- collecting K-Pop artists. Psy has been signed by Justin Bieber’s manager, and will.i.amhas produced the new album by K-Pop girl group 2NE1 (as in, “To anyone” or “21”). With a bit more raunch to them than the usual K-Pop fare, 2NE1 could be huge. The best description I’ve read of them is “The Spice Girls – but without the bad singing”.

Big Bang, an off-the-assembly- line boyband, are already one of the biggest selling acts in Asia. With their numerous teen fashion tie-ins, Big Bang are endorsement- friendly fodder for 10-15 year olds everywhere.

It’s K-Pop’s “X-Factor on Steroids” nature that makes it so marketable. Lyrical content doesn’t matter (just as well) as the genre is all about looks, fun and fashion. Technicolour kitsch it may be, but this is good, clean pop that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is never in danger of coming over all moody and wanting to “grow as an artist”.

Uniquely, K-Pop is funded and backed to the hilt by the South Korean government – a local music sound going global ensures cultural and political capital for the country. The genre even has its own government-supported dedicated music channel.

One of K-Pop’s aims is to create musical acts that can match the hi-tech success of local companies LG and Samsung. According to Steve McClure, the editor of an influential Asian music industry website, K-Pop has “an economic structural imperative in the South Korean music ecosystem”.

Given that it’s going to damage national music sales in Europe and America, the vaguely racist sniping has already begun. We hear that the acts are recruited while still very young, sent to K-Pop boot camp and only given ad-friendly, sanitised music that avoids any mention of sex or alcohol.

Yes, K-Pop is “dumb and young” but it’s shiny, happy, poppy dumb and young. All boy/girl bands are clinically assembled and ruthlessly schooled in the do’s and don’ts of the genre. What K-Pop does is maximise the “cultural technology” that underpins the spread of any new musical sound. The breakthrough “gangnam style” may only be the Macarena of K-Pop, but what’s coming up behind is pure and powerful radio/chart-friendly fare.

And remember what Noël Coward once said: “Never underestimate the potency of cheap music”.


LOVE:They’re three sisters. They are called Haim and they play great, 70s/80s-influenced pop-rock. Take a listen. Big things are expected of them.

HATE:Simon Cowell has scrapped plans – and he was serious about this – to bring out an EDM Idol series.

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