By Joseph Kornelsen
Go anywhere in the world and you will be hard pressed to find a twenty-something who hasn’t seen or at least heard of “Gangnam Style.”
The music video from South Korea has only existed for half a year and it is already the first Youtube video to be seen more than a billion times. A view count like that isn’t cobbled together in any single country or in any single culture. That is a big deal.
This goofy video is going to bring world peace.
The promise of the Internet has always been its potential to connect us. The medium has a naturally democratic and participatory lean. Access is now worldwide and is spreading into even the most backwater corners of the globe. The viral success of “Gangnam Style” has inaugurated worldwide mass culture and it appears that that culture likes invisible horse riding.
In the old days, mass culture was usually nation-specific and conservative. Sitcoms based around a nuclear family living in some Pleasantville, USA were the bread and butter of entertainment television from the fifties to the late nineties. Even on MTV you wouldn’t have seen what is considered standard fare on the Internet today. “Gay Bar” by Electric Six features a half naked Abraham Lincoln caressing other Abraham Lincolns and singing “I want to take you to a gay bar.” Can you imagine seeing that anywhere on 90s television? The video has a view count nearly the size of Canada’s population.
Those views are worth a ton of money, yet distribution companies couldn’t have known that such radical content would be so popular. Investors weren’t willing to challenge what they believed was the status quo because the risk was too great. The result was content that showed us a reality less inclusive than what we would naturally choose.
Today, computers have significantly reduced the cost of producing content and the Internet has brought the cost of distribution down to zero. Far more people have the power to produce cultural content now. The writing, the music, and the video we have access to is extremely diverse and it is in turn affecting our expectations from other media.
In television, the HBO drama “Girls” is getting criticism across the Internet for not having enough ethnic diversity. Back in the 90s programs like Seinfeld, Friends and The Simpsons received no such criticism. In music, attitudes of racial separation were reinforced through genres. In the early 2000s white rappers were considered aberrational, now we have “hipster hop.”
Music and television are changing, but is because the Internet is proving that people are far more accepting of difference and diversity than distributors were willing to believe.
Of course, there are still powerful interests that use the media to shape our attitudes. The powerful have had a monopoly on culture for a long time and it will take time to change that.
For example, because of the massive media presence of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson over the last 40 years there is still a wide-spread belief that the bible spends a lot more than a couple sentences condemning abortion and homosexuality.
On the political side, the government-generated and media-promoted conversation on Iran has brought the idea of a pre-emptive strike in the Middle East back in fashion. Less than ten years after the failure of the exact same idea, a very large proportion of Canadians support the pre-emptive strike. The media imaging of Iran is so geared toward conveying Iranian backwardness that people are often surprised to see that Tehran actually looks a lot like any North American city. Bloggers and columnists have had to devote many words to remind us that the people and government of Iran are rational decision makers; that they are just like us.
And that is why “Gangnam Style” is so important. To hear people say that we are the same is one thing, but now we can actually see it. “Gangnam Style” is certainly not conservative content by any standard (except for maybe in Korea: K-Pop is pretty crazy). That it is so widely loved here in the West is interesting, and that it is loved across the globe is inspiring. Flash Gangnam-dancing mobs in South East Asia, chart topping success in Europe and the Americas and popular “Egypt Style” and “Arab Style” parodies are all testaments to its world-wide popularity. That’s the big deal: people in all these different cultures like the same crazy stuff.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has lauded the song and video saying, “Through the promotion of arts we can better understand the culture and civilisations of other people.” It’s a bold and accurate statement. We are now able to understand one another’s culture on our own terms rather than through the media or our leaders.
Many of the things that have divided people over the ages have been negative characterizations of foreign cultures by their leaders. George W. Bush was always pretty straight-forward with these characterizations: “People in our country wonder why, why would somebody hate America. It’s because we love freedom, that’s why.” Although cultural arguments weren’t used to start the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, once WMDs weren’t found and Bin Laden moved to Pakistan, both those wars were continued with cultural justifications. Very little discussion was had over how many people had to be killed to affect these cultural changes.
It’s fair to say that there are negative values held by cultures, but these values are reinforced by the powerful because they help the powerful. Disempowering women is a great way to break up the family as a political unit. Drawing lines on maps and telling two neighbours that they were fundamentally different was the way the British kept their empire afloat in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, which desperately needs improvement, is hampered by government legislation that incentivizes cultural exclusivity on reserve lands.
In 1914 German, French and British soldiers celebrated Christmas together on the Western Front. Sadly they realized too late that they all knew the same Christmas carols. At their leaders’ behest they had to keep killing each other for three more years.
Today we know long before we’re at the front lines that people in other countries and in other cultures like the same things we do. That a video featuring campy explosions, a bunch of middle aged ladies on a tour bus rocking out and a man strutting his stuff for other men in a sauna, would be loved around the world is not something we would have ever predicted in the days of the cultural monopoly. Nobody has ever wanted to fight their friends, now we know that most people throughout the world probably could be our friends.
Through “Gangnam Style,” in all its ridiculous K-Pop glory, the Internet is beginning to show its promise.
Joseph Kornelsen is a Winnipeg writer, and, generally, a pretty smart guy.
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