Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Gangnam Style": Wait, there’s music involved, too?

Now that I’ve set forth the foundation for this blog, I’m going to turn to something more current (and fun).

The viral K-pop video just hit 240 million YouTube views and counting, and the artist responsible, rapper PSY, is riding on a wave of success into the US spotlight. The song’s success is more exceptional because the song is (mostly) in Korean.

Much of the media hype around the song focuses on the video, and there are plenty of factors there that make it a tantalizing YouTube hit: the hilarious dancing, the crazy characters, the random scene changes, the culture shock, and the over-the-top antics. Underneath all that, there is a layer of nuanced satire (for more about its background, see this AP article and this from the Atlantic). While the envy and distaste for the conspicuously wealthy might lurk at the edges of consciousness of our fascination, I think it’s safe to say that for the most part Americans are unfamiliar with the cultural issues behind the video.

But what very few people talk about is the music. Let’s face it, the video wouldn’t be viral without it. What about the music makes the music of "Gangnam Style" work?

A Chorus?

Pretty much all the media mentions about the music is the “catchy” or “addictive” chorus. What they probably mean is the “hey, sexy lady” section, perhaps because that’s all they can understand. To that, I say 1) that section isn’t really a chorus and further, I claim the song doesn’t have a chorus, and 2) that section is not what makes this song really work.

There are basically two sections to this song, which I’ll call A and B. A dominates the piece, forming the background of most of the music. This section has an infectious, danceable rhythm that captures the motion of jumping up and down. The electronic glissando (or pitch slide filling the space between notes) on the main beats really helps with the jumping motion. The rapping, the short “op, op, Gangnam style” sections, and the “hey, sexy lady” sections all can be classified under A. Although the song does an excellent job of varying each recurrence of A in interesting ways, there really isn’t much harmonic motion (meaning the chords don’t change much) during any of these parts. And sitting on A for a while, though fun at first, eventually becomes of boring.

In comes B. The harmonic motion picks way up (meaning the chords change). The rapper suddenly starts singing. This section builds in volume, and the phrases get shorter and shorter. Through this, the glissando jumps out of A and starts getting higher and higher in pitch. Finally, the phrase breaks down to simply quick beating, building the tension to a climax. And then, silence.

This section, B, is really the key to why this song works. Notice how the video imitates the tension of the building music. Notice that the silence helps accentuate the tremendous lift preceding it. I would argue that B is what songwriters would call a pre-chorus. Like a chorus, a pre-chorus has the same words each time it appears, but unlike a chorus, which is a goal in itself, the pre-chorus builds to a goal. With its harmonic movement, B really sets the song apart from most rap songs, which hardly ever depart from one chord.

Except what happens after the silence is not a chorus, but a return to the intro and verse beat, A. It’s a recovery, like the music is telling the listener “we’ve just gone a long distance, let’s rest awhile in this comfortable place. And dance while we’re at it.” The layering of “hey, sexy lady” onto A is then a nice icing on the cake, a varied repetition of A we haven’t heard yet. The song goes through the whole cycle again, and by the time we reach B again, the lift is even more effective because we’ve been through 4 whole repetitions of A without a break. The third time through the cycle, the song avoids B with a building version of A, perhaps either because B is so draining or because leaving B out leaves us wanting more.

Here’s a full map of the different sections in "Gangnam Style":

intro    A       A      B    A    A       A       A      B    A      A       A        A      outro
         rap1   rap2         op  sexy  rap1  rap2         op   sexy  build   sexy

Comedy in rap: a backdoor

One more note about the music: the comedy not only happens on the screen, it also happens in PSY’s satirical tone of voice, and this has an effect on the music. You can tell despite the language barrier that “Gangnam Style” is not your run-of-the-mill serious gangster rap; it's a completely different thing. Just the fact that a Korean’s doing the rapping creates some laughter-inducing cognitive dissonance for us Americans. By the way, other not-black people have gotten into rap by the same comedy rap backdoor. For example, Eminem, who did not hit the big time until he created his Slim Shady alter ego, a parody of lower-class whites. PSY could be the nerdy Korean’s answer to Eminem.

Would this song have made it in the US without the video? Probably not. But I don’t think the video would have made it without the backbone of a well-constructed song, either.

So, what do you think? Is there something in the music of "Gangnam Style" you like (or don't like)?

Also, check out this "Gangnam Style" Flashmob at the University of Michigan.

New vocab: harmonic motion, glissando, outro, pre-chorus


  1. Glissando -- so that's what it's called. When I first heard the song it is what got my attention, "Well, this is going to be interesting."

  2. There was a recent episode of NPR's Planet Money that focused on the Korean Pop industry and what the success of Gangnam Style means for the nation as a whole and the global pop music scene. You should check it out - it was fascinating:

  3. Brilliant piece, Peter, many thanks. If you're interested to know some facts about the man behind the music, here's a very frank and in depth 80 minute interview in a famous Korean talkshow. You have to turn on the closed captions in youtube.