Last night I gave this Gangnam Style thing, and forgive me spelling out the figure but it gives ample opportunity to rinse such a total’s full magnitude around your captive mouth, its nine hundred and nineteen million, seven hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and nineteenth viewing on YouTube – not making it beyond halfway may count for a paltry 0.5 towards that figure, which would have swelled several thousand higher in the brief time I decided my time would be more wisely spent doing something, or indeed anything, else.
Listening to it was a strange choice to make in the first place. Like everyone with the exception of children in the womb, deaf animals and lampposts with enviable resolve, this ‘sensation’, as the excitable press would have it, had stained my vision like cataracts. It’s inescapable when in its original form, or when parodied by game show presenters across the world – in some cases probably even the news has weighed in with a segment devoted to it come the end of their broadcast, a period generally set aside for the comparably light-hearted once the weighty stuff has been glossed over by hosts wearing too much make-up.
Gangnam Style is unavoidable and inescapable. Or to put it in grander terms – omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient over what is known as popular culture. That this also describes the presence of however God is derived, revered or feared in society makes the impact of this South Korean, and I’m really struggling to pin-down exactly what it is as ‘song’ is no longer up to the task so ‘thing’ will have to do, all the more troublesome. Apart from the references to it I’d picked up, I’d never put the time aside to listen to what all the fuss is about.
This was a deliberate choice, as weeks and months can pass without me being aware of who might be enjoying the Number 1 song in the UK charts. Assuming whoever it might be isn’t lording it in the back of a limousine with tender lobster and empty lies to impressionable groupies while they nip to the corner shop, I’d walk past this kind of artist in the street with not a hint of recognition. Curiosity got the better of me though, as did my momentary desire to take a peek under the bonnet (by which I mean a ‘hood’ should you be lounging in a Los Angeles duplex), of what drives the culture industries these days, which to stick with the metaphor has clean blown a gasket.
The global success of this is astonishing and disturbing in equal measure. Culture naturally depends on crossover appeal, but in many instances a concept or point of origin for a work or text ensures its reception beyond an intended audience can only ever be some kind of inauthentic experience, where the motives of a work remain misunderstood or misinterpreted. For a text to achieve its aim, assuming it has one other than to rejoice in its pure right to exist, it seeks authenticity through its target audience only if they engage with it in the terms in which it was intended – when both parties meet in the middle of this relationship its true meaning is granted. Postmodern texts though have a habit of ignoring the merits of authentic inception becoming its equivalent in reception, as immediately many of them begin as parodies lacking a sense of humour or style of things not worth bothering with in their original form.
Gangnam Style sets out to be deliberately bad for the sake of it. In this respect it’s an overreaching success. In doing so it has become the immutable fact of popular culture, ably supported by the internet. This raises aesthetic problems about taste and judgement, but not least the role of the internet as champion and distributor. As sentimental things people become attached to artefacts. Our books become peculiarly precious possessions, whose importance is explained away in misplaced poetic terms such as enjoying their smell and general appearance, not that these aren’t contributing factors. What we crave in and through them happens to be ownership, as from that comes a sense of control. This book, by it not being yours, can only be mine. That millions are reading the same international best-seller is beside the point – each experience is individual, rather than collective.
The lack of technology contained in books prevents an immediate discussion as to plot, opinion on narrative with a stranger across the globe. About as much as we can expect is that a friend or relative shares similar taste, in which case we converse with somebody already familiar about its strengths or weaknesses, or to notice that a stranger on public transport somewhere is several chapters behind wherever we might be so is yet to discover Margaret is actually Robert in disguise, which immediately shuts the door on public discourse with them, as the shift to what is actually private discourse via the internet, regardless of its empowering claims to the opposite, is all consuming. We cannot own cyberspace in the same way we can a tangible object gathering dust on a shelf. We can do what we like with a book, even use it in a method against its design – a doorstop maybe, or weapon to throw at a partner when they forget your anniversary.
We can do nothing about the internet, which has become the final judgement over what constitutes popular culture. Skype and PayPal both use the same participation count as YouTube, but there’s a vital difference in how each function sharing the same medium is used. While we talk with distant relatives on Skype, we can see that millions of others are doing exactly the same thing, but crucially the conversations are bound to differ given the limitlessness of topics and local news stories of interest. As we buy something using PayPal, we see that, again, millions of others are up to much the same, but the items they buy and the reasons for these purchases have nothing in common with our own. This is plurality in action. With YouTube however, viewing figures relate to the identical – despite it containing countless millions or billions of clips, mass congregation around the Gangnam Style clip can only be viewed as standardisation on an epic scale.
Here we find the death of diversity. That someone is simultaneously watching the same thing as me in China loses its appeal once we realise it makes no positive difference to either party. While this is also true for a couple of readers of the same book separated by many thousands of miles, the difference is a book makes no liberatory claim beyond the individual. Postmodern texts though find their ideal foil for their conniving tactics in the shared ideological devices of sites such as YouTube, whose purpose is not to free or reach out to strangers in the aim of bringing them together, but to confirm the unimpeachable status of the internet at large. When considered alongside my earlier point about our ongoing lack of control or ownership of this space, we find ourselves stuck in an entirely undemocratic and perverse situation.
Soon enough Gangnam Style will rack up its one billionth viewing – a pivotal moment once it happens, but not for the reasons YouTube will celebrate it. According to the World Bank, the global population currently stands at 6, 973, 738, 433 – give or take, 1/7th of us have felt the same kind of suggestible influence from somewhere by watching it without a hope of understanding. The freedom of choice still exists to watch what we please whenever suits, so in many respects the direction of popular culture lies in the hands of users. The insignificance though of my isolated view amongst that many provides a stark reminder of our mortality. While acting as a pure transmitter of material, the internet’s insatiable desire for consumption as its own justification is matched only by its indifference as to how, when and why this occurs. Caught in the middle of this dichotomy are people reduced to the empty signifier of ‘end-users’, where all subjectivity is lost to the conceptual, while the medium itself is irreducible to nothing whatsoever.
When popular culture and the internet combine to deliver supposedly harmless content which triggers such reflection, this is the clearest indication that their power is being abused. Inward and solitary thinking is a negation of the emancipatory aims of the hegemonic medium of this or any age.