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Off The Charts

What “Gangam Style” Says About The World

Amit Gurbaxani Nov 06, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a kiddie birthday party that was held on the same scale as a wedding reception or more appropriately, a sangeet. Except, instead of flower arrangements, the walls were decorated with balloons and instead of a stage, there were cut-outs of castles and Disney princesses. The soundtrack, however, comprised hit Bollywood remixes from the past couple of years, which when you come to think of it, are a suitable soundtrack for a game of tug-of-war. Towards the end of the party, when the lunch was served, the DJ played “Gangnam Style” by Korean pop star Psy.

Watch Psy’s smash hit that’s yet to hit No.1 on Billboard Hot 100


It was another sign of the ubiquitousness of the viral video. 

It’s the kind of thing that would lead you to believe that “Gangnam Style” is a No.1 song. That, however, depends on your description of what a No.1 song is. If you go by the narrow definition of a track that topped the US charts, then you’d be surprised to know that “Gangnam Style” hasn’t yet reached the summit of that survey [yet]. It’s been stuck at No.2 for the past six weeks behind Maroon 5’s “One More Night.” Now, if you’re not a fan of that band, I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard the latter song. But I bet that even if you hate “Gangnam Style,” you’ve probably heard the tune at least once over the last month or so if you’re someone who listens to music on a regular basis. 

Watch Maroon 5’s “One More Night” below


The reason for this seeming anomaly is that the US chart isn’t a simple sales chart like the UK one. In the States, music industry publication Billboard, which compiles the official rankings, uses a combination of sales, radio airplay and streams on services as Spotify, to determine the most popular song in the nation. For the past six weeks, while “Gangnam Style” has been out-selling “One More Night,” far more radio stations have been playing “Night” than they have been playing “Style.” [The irony is that Maroon 5’s last hit “Payphone” had a frustrating six-week run at No.2 behind Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” I wager that if you asked the average Maroon 5 fan to hum both “Payphone” and “One More Night”, far more would be able to do the former.]

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Over the years, chart watchers have occasionally debated the veracity of this composite determination of the charts, and the discussion heats up usually when a song that isn’t No.1 on any of the individual charts [radio, sales or streaming] ends up being the No.1 song of the week because its overall “chart points” are higher than those of the rest. In India, where we don’t have any legitimate music charts, it would be safe to say that “Gangnam Style” is the most popular “international” pop tune at the moment. For what it’s worth, it has already reached No.1 on the Vh1 Top Ten, and is the most downloaded mp3 on Flyte. This past weekend, you could buy “Gangnam Style” T-shirts and badges at a stall at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender festival in Pune, where comedy rock band Alien Chutney also worked the song into their set. On TV, meanwhile, Amitabh Bachchan danced to it on Kaun Banega Crorepati. And like the DJ at the kiddie party, just this Monday, Red FM RJ Rohini managed to sneak in the track onto the airwaves among all the Hindi film tracks. 

While it’s clear that the K-Pop song has truly captured the public’s imagination, there’s no getting away from the fact that “Gangnam Style” is a very annoying song. It follows in the long tradition of such dance-friendly tunes as “Macarena” and “We Speak No Americano” where the language and therefore the lyrics of the composition aren’t half as significant as its infectiousness. They are the kind of tunes that go on to become global smashes, the kind that cut through socio-economic demographics and appeal not just to regular music buyers [in other words, it’s not just the kids but their parents, aunts and uncles that know the track]. If you look at the history of modern pop, it does not reflect particularly well for popular tastes. Earlier this week, the Official Charts Company, which compiles theUKcharts, sent out a series of messages on their Twitter page in relation to their just-released updated list of theUK’s best-selling singles. The idea, I gathered, was to pit a critically derided hit and a well-received one against each other and show how that in most cases, the latter outsold the former [“Party Rock Anthem” vs “Dancing Queen,” “Ghostbusters” vs “Another Brick In The Wall,” Eiffel 65’s “Blue” vs “Hey Jude”].

The masses got it right with Adele. Photo: Mari Sarii

So what exactly does this say about the charts, and more importantly, what does it say about the average person’s musical preferences? After all, some might argue that if people’s tastes are so bad, are the charts important at all? Isn’t it better to just ignore them altogether? You could, and a lot of people I know do. But here’s the thing, sometimes the masses do get it right. Adele, who has been single-handedly flying the flag for the idea of buying music for the past two years, can be accused of being safe but most would agree that there’s a honesty in her music that’s lacking in the songs of her more dance music-oriented contemporaries. And if you look at the list of the best-selling albums of all time in the UK, you’ll find such critic’s darlings as the Beatles, Queen, ABBA and Oasis [never mind that most of the sets are greatest hits compilations].

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The reason why I follow the music charts is simply because they tell me what the world is listening to.

I may not agree with the world, but in some way, it helps me understand it better. I may not ever get the mindless appeal of LMFAO [who by the way have had two huge No.1 US hits] but then the LMFAO fan may never get my love for the despair-laden tunes of The Smiths. Sometimes, the charts suck, but always, they are just a reflection of our times: ten years from now, there will be people reminiscing about how stupid they looked singing or dancing along to “Gangnam Style” just as today, my generation of 30-somethings looks back at the “Macarena” with a mix of both embarrassment and nostalgia. 

Amit Gurbaxani is the senior editor of www.mumbaiboss.com. He has been writing about music for over a decade.

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