Wednesday, October 31, 2012

China’s Search of a Global Music Hit

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After installing a DSTV decoder I was told by a friend that should my subscription expire and I cannot pay immediately, I should remember that the Chinese are very generous. The implication is that I will find Chinese channels for free until I am able to pay my subscription. That is how I came to discover Chinese Central Television, CCTV and fell in love with the English Channel. One show that I watched only two times and fell in love with is the show, Crossover.  In addition to other issues, they also discuss issues that are close to my heart and happened to be my niche, music. On crossover edition of October 30th, the host discussed “Gangnam Style craze.” Gangnam Style is a song by a Korean Pop musician by the name of PSY who shot to global fame after the song was let loose to global music fans, July 15th this year. While I watched the show, I waited for a question I knew will definitely come. The question of “why hasn’t China got such a global hit?” The same question was asked on Dialogue, another program on CCTV English.
One thing that we all know is that the soul of the world is in the West. Whatever you do must be endorsed by the West before it can be said to have truly found global success. This means that a lot of endeavors have found hidden success in the sense that they succeeded elsewhere except in the West and just passed out without the ovation. The originator may have found money or whatever he set out to find but, still, his effort was not successful by Western standard. There is a good chance such a person will, within himself, have only partial fulfillment as a result.
The question is why is it so? I think that the West has a lot of pride in their culture and values. It would not endorse anything that failed to meet its standard. The rest of the world, on the other hand, has accepted this principle of appraisal. You see this by the universal appeal of Western Culture. Bright Chimezie, a Nigerian Highlife musician sang in one of his songs that he went to a Disco party and requested for an African song. The result was that people laughed and called him Okoro Junior, another way of referring to him as uncivilized. If you want to produce a music record that will be a global hit, then you must make compromises by knocking off certain elements of your own culture and replacing them with Western equivalents. This is what PSY did. His song, Gangnam Style is a fusion of Techno, Rap, humor, exotic dance and Korean elements. The song may not have made the kind of success it made without the internet, however. For the music to be heard in the West, radio and TV presenters must agree to play it in their shows. It is the only way their fans can hear it. The internet effectively cuts out the presenters from the equation. The implication now is that a song can make it whether or not presenters give their support. Canadian Justin Bieber, for instance, was discovered not by radio play but through YouTube.
In-as- much as the West places a lot of pride in their values, the East also does. The difference however, it that Chinese culture has not travelled far and wide like Western culture. The Chinese Government knows that getting people around the world to understand their culture is a sin qua non for the overall progress of China and not just in the arts. The Chinese Government is already doing this in many ways that I have seen. Ordinary Chinese understand that their nation is growing faster than other nations in many areas but wonder why they cannot have a global hit like Gangnam Style.
Some people don’t support throwing away all of their cultural elements in desperation for success. Even PSY would not support that. It is the reason why there are still elements of his native country, Korea, in Gangnam Style. The truth is that there are Chinese pop artistes that have made moderate infusion of Western elements in their records, making hits that are better than Gangnam Style but have not found its level of success. With that kind of population, that is just possible in some corners of the vast nation.  On the other hand, there are Western hits that are better than Gangnam Style that have not received the kind of views it has enjoyed. To a large extent, the success of Gangnam Style has also been influenced by the luck factor. It was drawn to my attention because many people are talking about it. Radio stations are however not even playing it in my own corner of the world in Africa compared to many American songs that have not found the kind of hits it has enjoyed online.
Juju and Highlife genres of music originated in the Southwestern and Southeastern parts of Nigeria respectively and found popularity around the world in the seventies down to the eighties. They were conservative mixes of Western elements into Nigerian folk music of the regions they originated from. The popularity they found cannot however be compared with the popularity of today’s pop music from Nigeria as played by artistes like Tuface, D’banj, P-Square, brackets and the others. These Nigerian contemporary music acts are so popular that they collaborate with big names like Snoop Dogg, Akon, Rick Ross and many others from the US. The difference between their works and those of their grandparents that played Highlife and Juju is that, to a larger extent, they have compromised the Nigerian elements, replacing them with American equivalents. The music is done purely for economic gains and getting closer to a culture they cherish rather than for promoting domestic culture.
To a remarkable degree, I feel that politics has also played a decisive responsibility towards the making of Gangnam Style. You may not find support in the West if governments over there don’t buy your political trajectory. Endorsing you could amount to endorsing a political ideology they don’t buy. The fans in the West are, of course, allegiant to their governments who are the custodian of their values. As a result, your government must be in the good books of the West for your music to make it in the West. One way out is to sing songs of condemnation against your authorities, just like the Pussy Cats.
Fundamentally however, music should be very original and within the cultural perspective that majority of music fans can relate to. Furthermore, the music should find good publicity. With the internet, it could be said that the barrier of publicity has become easier to overcome. It means that we should be able to see more hits like Gangnam Style in the months and years to come.
Yiro Abari is the author of HOW TO BECOME A MUSIC MAESTRO