Aditi Gupta

May 2, 2014

High Stakes 3: Music and Economy


On July 15, 2012, a video was uploaded to YouTube. In less than six months, this video would be both the first YouTube video to ever hit one billion views and the most viewed YouTube video of all time. This video was the music video for the song Gangnam Style by the Korean pop artist Psy, and this is its story.

Why did Gangnam Style shoot to the top of the collective world consciousness, out of all of Psy’s songs? Why, even, did Psy himself garner so much popularity in such a short span of time? Fans who had been immersed in the world of K-pop before the Gangnam Style craze were bewildered. There were many other groups that they would have expected to get wildly popular before Psy did.[1] By all accounts, the idea of the boy and girl groups of five to twelve talented, young, and attractive people who could dance, sing, and act—like SHINee, Super Junior, and Girl’s Generation—should have appealed much more to the pop culture of many foreign countries, and especially in the United States. They are much more like what the United States was used to in terms of popular music, and just different enough in language and general style that they should have drawn audiences in. One Direction, a hugely popular boy band from the United Kingdom, was gaining in popularity at this point in time. Here’s an example of what they were doing around July 2012:

And here’s an example of what SHINee was doing a little earlier:

But instead, the first video to ever garner a billion hits on YouTube was the wacky, nonsensical work of art that is the music video for Gangnam Style. [2] Here it is, for your comparison:

The origins of Gangnam Style start, of course, with the origins of the artist himself. Park Jae-Sang was born on December 31, 1977, in the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea. [3] He grew up in South Korea, and planned to matriculate to Boston University to study business; however, once he got there he discovered his love for music and transferred to Berklee College of Music to study it more adequately.[4] This also did not work out, and Park dropped out of Berklee in order to pursue a solo singing career back in South Korea.

Psy released his first album, PSY from the PSYcho World!, on January 12, 2001.[5] At this time, he was seen by the music scene as a rookie hip-hop singer with considerable talent. This debut album was catchy and clever, with lyrics that were a little too outspoken for the main civil groups in South Korea—they heavily opposed Psy’s work, causing him to have to pay fines and to restrict access to his album. Psy’s second and third albums, Sa 2 and 3 Psy, have similar stories. They are both just as strong and memorable as Psy’s debut album, and they both had points that drew the attention of authority figures in South Korea. Psy started being noticed for his controversial nature, and civil groups again questioned the effect it would have on young people in South Korea. His album Sa 2 was banned from being sold to people under 19 years of age.

Here is the entirety of PSY from the PSYcho World! It is a great example of his early work and the style he used to have—much, much different from what has propelled him to international fame today.

In 2010, Psy joined YG Entertainment, one of the “big three” music labels in South Korea. These companies are mostly responsible for the international fame and distribution of K-pop music as it stands today. They are all incredibly successful companies, and this can arguably be seen best in their financial success: in the first half of 2012, YG Entertainment gained the equivalent of $36,325,392.99, and in the first half of 2013, YG Entertainment gained the equivalent of $54,036,032.31.[6] From these earnings, we can see both the enormity of the monetary success that companies like YG Entertainment earn because of the artists they take under their wing and the increase in earnings in the span of one year. Many artists choose to join these corporations because of their incredible track records with other artists and because of the tight hold they have on the entire entertainment business in South Korea as a whole. Psy’s decision to join YG Entertainment was partly based on this and partly based on his own lack of funding.3

As part of his incorporation into YG Entertainment, Psy was offered many more performance opportunities—often in front of tens of thousands of people. In January 2012, Psy performed in front of 80,000 people for his debut in Japan as part of the YG Family Concert, which was of course through YG Entertainment.  During this concert, Psy started to present himself as the precursor to the image he presented in Gangnam Style. At his entrance, Psy held up a sign in Japanese saying “I’m a famous singer well-known for driving the audience wild in Korea, but here, today, I’m just a little chubby newcomer.”[7] With this, Psy turned himself into a comedic figure instead of someone who the audience was expected to take seriously. This move helped him more than anyone in the general public could have imagined, and this became more apparent as his career progressed.

This all came to a head in July of 2012, which is when the video for Gangnam Style hit YouTube. Again, here’s the video for Gangnam Style:

The song Gangnam Style is a typical dance song, when it comes down to the basics. Again, it’s very catchy: it was in line with the burgeoning electronic music trend in 2012, and it wasn’t unpleasant to listen to. In this video, Psy is the epitome of a comedic character. He wears sunglasses throughout the entire thing, and when combined with the six or so truly ridiculous outfits he sports, Psy looks like someone you can’t help but laugh at a little bit. His dance moves aren’t trying to be sexy or suave at all—in fact, they’re the exact opposite. The most famous dance move that was taken from this video and spread all over the world was Psy’s horse-riding paradiddle shtick. Another move he repeats often is this funny four-step jig that makes his legs look like rubber rods waving sideways: again, not sexy, but hilarious. The situations that Psy is in throughout the video only heighten the comedy. One of the most memorable is the scene in which an elevator door opens on Psy singing to the camera under the legs of a man dressed as a clueless tourist, who is hip-thrusting in time to the song. Another is when Psy is inexplicably shirtless in a sauna, cuddling another shirtless man while a third starts to dance in front of them. Something is constantly going wrong for Psy even when the shot is supposed to make him look somewhat sophisticated. When he has two beautiful women on his arm, suddenly fake snow starts falling from the sky and coats them from head to toe. By the end of the video, any shred of attraction the viewer might have towards the character Psy plays is completely gone. Again, this is the complete opposite tactic from what other groups at the time were doing—and that is why it worked.

The reason why Psy and Gangnam Style took off so quickly and with such great scale is because the phenomenon was precisely what the world of popular culture was missing at the time. People didn’t need another picture-perfect group of talented kids who were churning out basically the same thing over and over, no matter where they were from. YG Entertainment took a completely different approach with Psy’s image: they made him the guy people could laugh at, especially when times were as rough as they were the world over in 2012. Gangnam Style was the perfect piece of comedy and music rolled into one. It could be marketed on so many levels, and YG Entertainment took full advantage of it. The song earned Psy $8.1 million in 2012 alone.[8] Imagine how much revenue Psy must have gotten from the song by this point in the middle of 2014. In addition, if this is the amount of money that the artist is earning from this song, the monetary gain for YG Entertainment—the company that is basically in control of Psy—must be colossal.

YG Entertainment and Psy sold the world a character who stood out for his hilarity at a time when everyone else was trying for sex appeal. He accomplished their goal, spreading as an image throughout the entire world and inspiring countless parodies and remakes of his work. The tactics used to sell this character were unnoticeable at the time, but looking back at the Gangnam Style craze after a year and a half, the methods are clear. Gangnam Style will stand as a cultural marker in the history of pop culture of the entire world, and when its achievements are viewed in Gangnam Style’s environmental context, it is clear that it deserves to be there.


[1]Yang, Jeff. “Gangnam Style’s U.S. Popularity Has Koreans Puzzled, Gratified – Speakeasy – WSJ.” The Wall Street Journal. (accessed May 1, 2014).


[2]Rahman, Ray. “PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ becomes first YouTube video to earn a billion views |” (accessed April 29, 2014).


[3]Williams, Ian. “PSY goes home, gets ‘Gangnam-Style’ welcome.” (accessed April 30, 2014).


[4]Rocheleau, Matt. “BU hopes to get donation from former student Psy, the South Korean rapper known for ‘Gangnam Style’ hit.” (accessed May 2, 2014).


[5]“Psy from the Psycho World!” iTunes. Accessed April 29, 2014.


[6] “Earnings of SM, YG, and JYP for the first half of 2013 revealed |” AllKpop. (accessed April 29, 2014).


[7] Kim, JiYeon. “Psy Wows Japanese Music Fans.” Psy Wows Japanese Music Fans. (accessed April 28, 2014).


[8] “PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ Has Already Earned the Singer $8.1 Million and Counting.” The Hollywood Reporter. (accessed May 2, 2014).



The presentational nature of European-centered and North American-centered performance is pretty much the only performance norm that audiences from these areas are accustomed to. A concert where audience participation is encouraged (beyond a sort of half-hearted clapping on the downbeats of measures every once in a while, or a call-and-response section in a song or two) is pretty much unheard of. This type of performance is characterized by the passive nature of the audience; they are there to take in everything happening before them while they themselves quietly sit on the outside of it. Attempting to fit other types of performances in which the participatory aspect of it is crucial to the way it should be experienced and understood into a presentational format, then, is destroying an incredibly central part of the overall meaning of the work of art. This is seen in the example of the cosmopolitan Zimbabwean music that Turino explored in his writings and that we discussed in class. By turning the participatory culture of cosmopolitan Zimbabwean music into a presentational performance, it loses a very unique trait, which shows how people have attempted to homogenize it to make it fit our European/North American-style performance norm in the past.

In the prompt for this low stakes assignment, you mentioned the example of seeing mbiras performed at Oberlin. Interestingly enough, I’ve been lucky enough to see something sort of like this. In July, I spent a week at Oberlin for the Oberlin Percussion institute. The resident professional percussion ensemble, the Percussion Group Cincinnati, performed for the attendees of the Institute one night. One of the pieces they performed used mbiras with  snare drums—they figuratively placed mbiras on top of functional snare drums with the snares switched off to amplify the sound to the entire recital hall. This performance took traditional songs and rhythms that would usually be played on mbiras, I believe, and turned it into a piece that was incredibly presentational—it was performed by three white men from the United States who had never been raised in the cultures that traditionally use mbiras, and the presentation of the performance reflected this.

At the time of the performance, nothing about it struck me as curious. Mbiras have been used in percussion performances for many years before my time; Western orchestral percussion has appropriated tons of instruments from other cultures in order to get specific types of sounds to fit the character of pieces from other cultures, and mbiras in a percussion ensemble performance were just another extension of that in my mind. After this discussion, however, I question this habit of the orchestral community that I used to just take for granted. I seriously doubt that percussionists or Western musicians in general stop to take into account the cultural significance of the instruments they play when performing pieces with roots in other parts of the world, and that has a greater effect than one might think on the way that the cultures that these instruments have been co-opted from are perceived. It’s not even that these cultures are being misrepresented—it’s that every time we do something like use mbiras or castanets or frame drums in Western performances without acknowledging their heritage, we have an active part in erasing their cultural significance entirely.

I think we can all acknowledge that this is a difficult topic. Where is the line between honestly making good music and using instruments from other cultures to do it, and the much less innocent appropriation of cultures? Who gets to delineate this difference? Is it offensive to play pieces like Capriccio Espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakov because of its use of castanets (the part for which, by the way, is fabulously enjoyable to play)? Or the famously virtuosic violin solo Tambourin Chinoise by Kreisler that appropriates all sorts of melodies that Kreisler thought sounded Chinese enough? Or should we just let this entire discussion go in order to put more emphasis on the beauty of the art itself, which (it could be argued) is all that matters?

After a year at Oberlin, I’m still not sure, but I hope I’m getting closer to the answer.

Shanachie Records was founded in 1975 by Richard Nevins and Dan Collins in the Bronx. Nevins and Collins originally founded Shanachie Records in order to sell Irish fiddle music. They were lucky enough to have the idea at a time when traditional music from many places in the world was gaining in popularity- so basically, Shanachie Records was in the right place at the right time. The Irish fiddle records were popular enough that in a few years, Shanachie Records grew to own one of the most notable collections of Irish music at the time, which they started to market internationally. Shanachie Records’ collection included music by The Chieftains, Makem & Clancy, DeDannan, Planxty, Clannad, and many more.

Here is an example of music by The Chieftains:

As Shanachie Records grew, they started trading their records with European companies in exchange for reggae albums. The first album they released was Rockers Meets King Tubby In a Firehouse by Augustus Pablo, and one of the songs on that album was Short Man Dub (which you can listen to here).

People quickly started becoming interested in reggae, and Shanachie Records profited greatly on this interest. Shanachie Records then released albums by artists like Rita Marley, Bunny Wailer, Alpha Blondy, and The Skatalites. Today, Shanachie Records is best known for its involvement with reggae music.

In the 1980’s, a genre of music called “world beat”—characterized by its use of traditional music from around the world, but slightly westernized—started gaining popularity. Shanachie Records again picked up on this trend, and began producing albums by musicians from all over the world. Shanachie Records is arguably best known for their albums by African musicians. They introduced the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the United States, who later went on to sing with Paul Simon on his album Graceland and win four Grammys with their own work.

Today, Shanachie Records is one of the largest and most successful independent labels in America. They have released the albums of many, many wildly famous artists in varied genres such as R&B, reggae, blues, and country music. These artists have gone on to win Grammy awards and other notable distinctions. I couldn’t find any specific numbers about Shanachie Records and their sales, but I think this is enough to distinguish them from any sort of mom & pop label where it’s a labor of love.

There are major participatory elements in both the Shona bira and Candomblé rituals. Most people in the village attend Shona biras, but there has to be a core foundation of musicians to make sure the bira can honor the ancestor with the type of music they once enjoyed. There also have to be people who possess certain skills (how to drum dandanda or play mbira) present. Other than that, though, total neophytes can (and are encouraged to) participate in the same performance as skilled musicians. It’s not about technical perfection; the goal here is more to challenge people who want to improve their musical skills and to include everybody who’s interested in playing, no matter their motivation. The attitude towards music here is much different than it is in our culture. While we focus more on the perfection of the music as a goal, music in Zimbabwe is seen as much better if everybody is locked into the groove on every level. The core group of musicians is obviously still important, since they hold everything together, but the experience as a whole is what is ultimately important.

Music in this ceremony is based on interlocking parts. This is done either with rhythm, with alternating pitches, or with half-patterns played by two separate people that are then put together. The music gets more and more complex as people start adding new variations to the song. The focus on interlocking rhythms and parts ends up forming new relationships between players and dancers, who build new variations off of what other people are doing and spin it into a new part of the web of sound. These relationships show that each person is a valued and important member of the group, and they lead to better relationships after the bira as well.

The music in a bira is part of a communication with an ancestor who has passed away. It continues until dawn. The most intense time in this ceremony is between five in the morning and sunrise, as this is when the musicians and dancers get a second wind as the end of the ceremony approaches.


The Candomblé music we’re discussing here happens in the public celebrations, where African Orixás (similar to deities or household gods) are called to possess religious initiates. Drumming, singing, and dancing are what are generally used for this possession. There are specific songs, dances, and rhythms associated with each Orixá.

In these ceremonies, as in the Shona bira, there is a heavy emphasis placed on community. Many members of the community join in singing and dancing together, while five or six musicians play the sacred drums and the shakers. The sacred drums are very important to the ceremony, because they provide the vital vibration and energy which the Orixás take as signs to appear. The drumming is performed by trained specialists, who know how to watch the proceedings to see who is about to be possessed and to help them along with increased vibrations from the drums.

The structure of a Candomblé ensemble is different than that of a Shona bira ensemble. First of all, there is a set of two or three drums, with the lowest one serving as the leader of the group. This ends up giving rhythmic cues to direct the rest of the participants in the ensemble. The rest of the drums and instruments like an agogo or an agbe set up the rest of a strict rhythmic structure that keeps the ensemble in time. This is different from the Shona bira, where there is no strict metric structure that keeps everybody together.

Similarly to the Shona bira, there is a feeling of call-and-response present through the ceremonies that further fosters the sense of community. The songs themselves are structured as call-and response relationships, with a lead singer being the “call” and a chorus being the response. These are sung in unison, without harmonization.

In conclusion, both types of music encourage participation, but the Shona bira does so with a lot less structure and with more of a focus on individual parts coming together to create real music as a whole. The Candomblé music has a similar sense of community, but it expresses this with unison singing and elements of call and response coupled with strong rhythmic structures to lead the entire group.

In class, we watched the Lightnin’ Hopkins short film and read a chapter by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) on blues and primitive jazz. Both of these pieces offer different insights on where the inspiration for this type of music came from, but they ultimately join up to offer a very similar (if not the same) conclusion. A lot of blues originated from slave calls back and forth on plantations that were used to stave off the soul-crushing boredom of the work slaves were forced to endure. Some of them incorporated the sounds and rhythms of the work that they had to do into their songs, like the thud of driving down a hammer spaced out evenly or of felling trees and whatnot. The origin story of this type of music gets less and less formal as time goes on in the chapter reading, and this is shown even better by the music played in the Lightnin’ Hopkins short film. Blues music is played in all sorts of settings with all sorts of people participating, and even more people dancing to it nearby. This type of music is what some people would call “for the people, by the people”- it’s about the real struggle and the attitude towards life that people suffered/adopted from it. 

Gender and Gambang

This piece is pretty rhythmic- there is one line that sticks pretty accurately to notes one set distance apart, and there is another line that appears over it that has notes half that distance apart primarily. It is not as melodic and free-flowing as some gamelan pieces. The gambang itself is the top line, and the line that comes in later sounds sort of like a xylophone, and is called a gender (thus the file name). This piece makes it apparent how different the tuning systems are between gamelan and western music. No matter where each line goes, they are always in what Western music would call “pretty” or harmonic intervals- they never sound dissonant with each other. This must be partially due to the tuning of the two instruments- I would imagine that they were tuned to match each other, to make sure that dissonance due to tuning does not appear in the music as a whole. I tried to see if I could differentiate between the slendro and pelog systems of tuning, but I failed.

The ways in which each instrument moved between pitches was interesting. The gambang would switch from a high pitch to a low pitch to a pitch in the middle quite often, especially in the beginning of the piece. The gender had clear sections where it would move up and then down and then up and then down a scale, which provided an even more interesting contrast between the two melodic lines.

There were no other drums or percussion in this piece, which made sense- the gambang and the gender by themselves were rhythmic enough to provide the percussive sense that the piece as a whole seemed to strive for.

The gambang line had a lot more repeating of pitches than the gender line did, again adding to the contrast of motion vs. stability between the two melodic lines.

Ketawant Subakastawa

In this piece, there were more instruments- including more drums/percussion and voice. This piece was more free-flowing and less stuck to a rhythmic structure of consistent note length relationships. It settled into its own looser rhythmic structure as the piece went on, though- I guess it just wasn’t as strict.

The contour of the piece was very interesting, especially in the vocal part. The way that the voice switched between notes was different than in Western music (obviously) and added a different element of fluidity than I found in the Gender and Gambang piece. Because of the nature of those instruments (percussive- you hit it once, the sound appears as fully as you let it, and then it dies away), differences in contour weren’t really possible. In this piece, though, the addition of the voice that could change that between note to note and piece to piece as the musicians wished gave it more spontaneity and complexity.

The addition of more instruments also allowed for the piece to sound fuller as a whole, in my opinion. There was more going on at any given time, more melodic paths to follow.

The drums did not give the piece as rhythmic a structure as someone might expect- they were pretty intermittent, and didn’t mark down the differences between notes as much as the gambang and gender did in the other example. They functioned a lot differently than they do in Western music, where keeping the instruments on track is pretty much what they do. Of course, the drummer is cueing the rest of the players to changes that are coming up in the music, but they are not used to create the structure as much as show signs leading up to changes in it, I think.

The song Tengo by Macaco is a great example of the mixing of cultures that we have been studying. Throughout most of the song, Tengo keeps a lot of the elements of most Latin American music- the guitar on the off-beats, the minor key (in this case, f#- pretty common, I think), and in the percussion the lower drum sound on beat 1 and the clap/tambourine accent on beat 3. There’s actually a lot of percussion action going on, but the instrumentation is different than the usual group of instruments than one hears in Latin American music. It’s been pared down to tambourine, small shaker, possibly timbales/a snare drum with snares off, and clapping hands. The rhythms are similar to what one might hear in Latin American music though. Obviously, the lyrics of the song are in Spanish (I understood about half of it! I was so excited!).

That being said, some elements of the song have been heavily influenced by the European/North American style. The section that starts at 2:27ish is a good example of this, with the electronic two note thing that comes in every two bars and the repeated C# beeping that also peppers the music. The vinyl scratching effect is also reminiscent of older North American music. The rhythms are also somewhat influenced by Western traditions- I think there’s more of a focus on stronger downbeats that keep it more grounded than bossa nova/clave rhythms or variations on them.

All of this leads to a really interesting mixing of two cultures. I think this is syncretism more than fusion, and I would call it that because it’s more of a combination of different styles from different places in the world than possibly something like gospel, which I would call more fusion. Tengo takes a lot of elements from both geographic areas and weaves them together pretty seamlessly to the point where one might not even be able to tell that they were once separate unless they listen very closely, but then the influences are very much discernible.

I’m looking forward to other people’s opinion on this! What do you think?