The significance of Gangnam Style, maybe

Gangnam Style is nearing 440 million views on Youtube, PSY taught Britney how to dance on Ellen (“Dress classy and dance cheesy“), and I’m still surprised whenever I meet someone who hasn’t heard (of) it.

But none of that approaches what I consider the song’s greatest achievement: getting play on American radio.

Granted, its 16th-ranked position on the Billboard ‘Radio songs’ chart is low compared to its #2 showing on the Billboard Hot 100 (which also measures singles sales, downloads, and other measures of popularity), or its #4 spot on the iTunes Official Music Chart (which measures what you think it does).

But that still puts it ahead of some other songs that seem like they’re always on the radio (see, e.g., Call Me Maybe, What Makes You Beautiful) and only one spot behind another song you may have heard of (Somebody That I Used to Know). And it shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the fact that radio stations are choosing to play an entirely foreign-language song in the first place.

Sure, you can turn on the radio anywhere in this country and hear music from international singers, but that music is almost always going to be in English. French/Israeli Yael Naim sings New Soul in English. Icelandic Of Monsters and Men sing Little talks in English. French/Canadian Carly Rae Jepsen sings Call Me Maybe in English. Colombian Shakira sings Waka Waka in… English? Ricky Martin. Enrique Eglesias. And so on.

You get the point: ‘I don’t always listen to the radio… but when I do, the songs had better be in English.’

The situation here stands in stark contrast to what you hear abroad. Last summer, I spent two weeks driving around Germany, listening to English songs on the radio – and have had similar experiences in Israel and Nepal. And I think it would be nice if the exchange started to go both ways.

Living in United States, it’s all too easy to get caught up in an English-speaking, America-centric bubble. If you so chose, you could go days without hearing a word of a foreign language – longer, if you don’t count Spanish as a foreign language. That language gap means Americans are rarely forced to acknowledge that there is a whole world out there, where people dress differently, think differently, speak differently – and maybe have something to contribute.

And don’t try to tell me American preference for English music is because our music is ‘better’. The same foreign artists who are popular in this country often sing in their native tongues abroad – but you’d never know that from listening to American radio.

Admittedly, I’m not all too familiar with international music, but from my limited contact with Hebrew and Hindi, Nepali (& Co.) music, I know there’s no shortage of catchy international tunes that anyone – even Americans – could appreciate without understanding a single word.

And I know that because I listen to them on my own time. The internet is an amazing thing.

No, radio no longer plays a huge role in the national consciousness. But at the end of the day, DJs play what they think their listeners want to heart. And thanks to Gangnam Style, what they want to hear might just sound a little less English than it did yesterday.

I’ll conclude with one of my favorite Hebrew songs. You just might like it, even if you don’t understand a word:


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