July 15th was the 2 year anniversary of the first appearance of Psy’s Gangnam Style on YouTube. It took the world by storm and today with 2 billion+ views it is the most viewed YouTube video by more than a billion views (eat it, Justin Bieber) – and it’s probably safe to say it is the most viewed video ever. In fact, Gangnam Style has nearly as many views as there are internet users on Earth.
Gangnam Style – the world’s most viewed video sensation
What was the magic formula that made this K-pop video so irresistible around the world – with viewers that don’t even speak a word of Korean? We can safely assume this song would never have penetrated non-Korean markets without the captivating, absurdly addictive imagery accompanying that catchy beat, and those unforgettable horsey dance moves. But there’s more to it than that; this video is so extra enjoyable because it pokes fun at some of the tropes (e.g. consumerism, materialism, and sexism) that permeate so much of contemporary popular music – humor that most viewers can recognize and appreciate – not to mention the satirical commentary on Korean society that gets lost in translation. With unprecedented room to experiment and access to so many different viewers, Psy and others show us that music videos have found a new calling on the Internet – a postmodern medium that lends itself so easily to cheeky, self-reflexive, ironic content. Enter the satirical, funny, music video.
I’m On A Boat – possibly the best song ever about being on a boat
To a casual listener, satirical songs often sound a lot like any other mainstream song; they might be catchy, danceable, radio-friendly, easy to sing along to, and occasionally auto-tuned as hell. If you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics (or if you do, but miss the joke), the songs can easily masquerade as something created by any other popular musician or rapper. They’re often designed this way because part of the fun comes in mocking the characteristics of the musical genre itself, in addition to the tongue-in-cheek social commentary and humor found in the lyrics and music video footage. For example, Lonely Island’s I’m On a Boat, which ridicules extravagant rap culture (and those who have bling versus those who don’t), had quite the impact on fans and industry alike. The song was actually nominated for a Grammy – not for a comedy award, but in a “real music” category: Rap/Sung Collaboration (they understandably lost to Jay-Z and Kanye West).
The music video is one tool that helps satirical artists and musical comedians visualize their humor, making it more accessible, more memorable, and even funnier than the song by itself. The Fox, one of the biggest viral hits of the past year, and one of the most viewed videos on YouTube with 430 million views, does just that. The team behind this hilarious and weirdly addictive musical phenomenon is Ylvis, a Norwegian comedy act and variety show (Tonight With Ylvis) performed by brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker. They wrote a song that is literally about animal sounds and a mythical tribute to the [previously] unsung mysteries of the fox, which doesn’t have a classic storybook sound of its own. The professionally produced video features furries socializing at a party, a laser-light dance act in the forest, a CGI fox bouncing around and chanting, and the Ylvisåker brothers’ moodily pondering over the truth of the fox’s sound.
The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?) – unlocking one of the greatest mysteries of our time
So what makes this silly video pure satirical genius? Well, the whole thing was meant as a joke to use on their talk show but it completely backfired. The Ylvisåker brothers intended the music video to be a flop in the US, but it propelled them to overnight worldwide success instead. The irony of this situation is in the unexpected popularity of a video that was designed to fail. Perhaps millions of viewers just have bad taste, or maybe Ylvis tapped into an important question regarding nostalgic childhood fantasies and re-creating those enchanting questions we cynically give up on with age, that resonated with fans. (What does the fox say, anyway?)
In addition to often being funny, satire music has a unique ability to probe those deeper questions about life, bringing an extra layer of self-reflexive pleasure to the listening experience. The artists behind these videos, such as Jon Lajoie, The Lonely Island, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Bart Baker, and others, who are usually comedians first and musicians second, have a knack for exploiting the framework of music consumption by poking holes in our everyday lived experience and question the power structures we often take for granted. Lajoie is a master of tackling topics that cause viewers to question their role in a consumerist society. He struck a chord with internet audiences in Everyday Normal Guy, one of his earliest and most successful videos to this day, where he adapts rap formula to hit an unconventional topic for rap music: mundanity. It’s refreshing to hear a song about real, boring life, when most pop music is often so glamorous and escapist.
Everyday Normal Guy – because being boring is not a crime
Videos go viral because they hook their viewers with something special that makes them worth sharing. Satire music videos surprise us and entertain us, while at the same time creating a space for self-reflective dialogue, and artists are eager to capitalize on the power of satire. Thus, the line between comedic music (jokes told through song) and mainstream music trying to be funny is increasingly blurred. It’s no coincidence then that at least a few of the most viewed videos on YouTube incorporate satire to some extent, such as Gangnam Style, The Fox, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s Thrift Shop, which satirizes typical rap and different cultural subgroups (namely vintage-wearing white hipsters who ball like club-hopping gangstas) and raises questions about consumerism (why do we brag about spending so much or so little). The rise of satirical music videos both as a comedian-driven genre and as a cheeky addition to “mainstream” music are a sign of the times and viewer demand for extra layers of pleasure and reflection in the media they consume: the clever, alongside the ridiculous.
Screen Cap from Gangnam Style
Screen Cap from The Fox
Guest Author Bio
Jessica Lindal and Hingman Leung
We are a comedy music-loving duo currently studying public culture for our Master of Arts program at Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC, Canada. By day, Hingman Leung is professional paper pusher in Ottawa and Jessica Lindal is an exchange student wrangler in Calgary.
For more satirical musical fun, check out our piece on 5 Hilarious Hit Songs That Stick It To The Man