When Psy’s Gangnam Style passed the one billion view mark last week, it predictably created another wave of publicity for the singer, this time away from the song’s frivolous nature to focus on deeper issues such as the rise of K-Pop and the role of the internet in music marketing. Not bad for a track initially viewed by everyone, except the singer himself, as a joke.
Novelty songs have to be one of the most under-appreciated genres in the popular music canon. It is often viewed as an aberration and the result of non-talented musicians striking gold.
While there may be such cases, novelty songs have more often played important roles in popular music.
The first of these is introducing audiences to new genres. Gangnam Style’s success opened doors to K-Pop, which has been struggling in the shadows of its Japanese counterpart. Unlike the ballad-driven and ultra-cheesy dance tracks saturating J-Pop, the Korean version basically takes the Japanese blueprint and pumps it with steroids.
Anyone witnessing Nine Muses and Seo In Young’s Corniche performances in last year’s Beats on the Beach would know what I am talking about. Both dressed up their wafer-light songs with blaring synths and stomping beats that bulldozed most of the cynicism from the crowd.
For a genre where artists rely so much on street-cred, hip-hop has a deep and commercially successful relationship with novelty music.
From Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang, Young MC’s Bust a Move to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby’s Got Back, novelty songs played a major role in taking the gritty genre from America’s urban centres to suburbia.
Even rockers have used novelty songs as one of many songwriting tools in their arsenal. Ever since the success of Pretty Fly (for a White Guy), the California punks The Offspring have made a point of cynically adding at least one or two joke tracks to each album – as insurance in case the heavier material doesn’t sell.
On the other hand, their fellow American band Alien Ant Farm witnessed the flip-side of the novelty song phenomenon. The group are still releasing harder rocking material in the vain attempt to convince people there is more to them than their stellar 2001 cover of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal.
Whether Psy’s career will be swallowed by Gangnam Style’s success remains to be seen, but at least it represents the best of what novelty songs have to offer: a catchy melody – and a joke shared by all.
Saeed Saeed is a reporter for The National’s Arts&Life