Here’s a fun online experiment. Go to the “charts” section of YouTube. Make sure your location is set as “India.” Search for most viewed videos of all time. Marvel at the results.
You are now looking at the most popular videos uploaded in India (though not necessarily the most watched by Indians – statistics are tricky!). And what a bizarre cul-de-sac these videos form. The most watched “Indian” video of all time, with about 88 million views, is not Indian at all, but rather a clip from Britain’s Got Talent, uploaded by a fellow with the user name akhilkhatri0608. Mr. Khatri has posted this feel-good British video as a way of luring YouTube viewers to his user page, which features samples of his photography.
The second most popular Indian video is a clip showing the first fifteen minutes of the 1982 Malayalam film Ina, which is about teen lust. Some sanity finally comes to the list with #3, the catchy and cannily marketed Why this Kolaveri Di? but #4 is a return to surreality: an animated version of the classic children’s song Baa Baa Black Sheep.
But, as 2012 comes to a close, let’s focus on the two most viewed “Indian” videos uploaded this year. The most popular, with more than 57 million views, is titled, “sexy love scene from Rudra -the fire- bengali film,” and is, indeed, a clip from the aforementioned 2007 movie, although “sexy” is an awfully disturbing way to describe a man ripping off a woman’s sarong and forcing himself on her. The next most popular (24 million views) has the misleading title “C U at 9 Hot Scene.” It is not a scene, but a trailer for the laughably bad 2005 Bollywood movie, with about six seconds of kissing and the remaining eighty-eight seconds devoted to well-worn horror motifs like breaking glass, dark forests, creepy phone calls and drops of blood. Both of these “hot” videos were uploaded this year by companies that offer a variety of full-length films and playlists from Indian cinema; they’ve used the marketing maxim “sex sells” to attract viewers to their wider offerings.
“The irony of PSY’s success is that he was never seen as an international spokesman for Korean pop music (K-pop). He was always a bit too edgy – and pudgy – for the K-pop scene, which is dominated by saccharine boy bands and girl bands.”
Contrast these two clips with the two most viewed videos worldwide from 2012: the dance-craze hit Gangnam Style (757 million views and counting) by South Korean entertainer PSY, and the sugary sweet pop song Call Me Maybe, by Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen (337 million views). Neither of these have yet unseated the all-time most-viewed video, Justin Bieber’s Baby, but in 2012 both Jepsen and PSY signed with Bieber’s American manager, Scooter Braun, who has positioned himself as the king-maker of the YouTube era.
Jepsen’s success is perhaps more predictable than PSY’s. The worldwide YouTube charts are dominated by North American pop megastars, as major record labels use YouTube as a platform to promote songs that are already saturating the airwaves. And Jepsen (and her bandmates and producers) must be given some credit too: they have created an endearing pop ditty that captures the nervousness and excitement of a blossoming crush. The song’s music video, with its twist ending (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you), is mildly funny and suitably entertaining, but it is mostly an accompaniment for the catchy tune.
Jepsen would have won the 2012 YouTube crown if not for PSY’s meteoric rise. If the Call Me Maybe video was an add-on, the Gangnam Style video is an essential part of the song’s charm, especially because the vast majority of its fans don’t speak Korean. The video’s “horsey dance” has been imitated in countless spin-off videos, and has become a favourite of Chris Gayle, the famous cricketer for the West Indies’ team. Indeed, it was Gayle who introduced much of India to Gangnam Style when he performed the dance during the finals of 2012 ICC World Twenty20 tournament. This sent many perplexed cricket fans to the Internet, and – inevitably – to YouTube and PSY. On the other side of the globe, the success of the video was spurred by tweets from celebrities like T-Pain and Katy Perry. PSY also wisely allowed knock-offs to proliferate; unlike most of the lawsuit-happy media world, he recognized that imitation really is the highest form of flattery (and is profitable besides).
The irony of PSY’s success is that he was never seen as an international spokesman for Korean pop music (K-pop). He was always a bit too edgy – and pudgy – for the K-pop scene, which is dominated by saccharine boy bands and girl bands. In this context, PSY’s mild send-up of the consumerist pretensions of class-conscious Koreans seems downright radical. Though to most international viewers, Gangnam Style remains an amusing dance with thumping bass, some sly social commentary sneaks in amidst all the fun. The lyrics make reference to girls who eat cheap noodles at home so they have the money to drink fancy coffee in public. The video keeps on showing that the high life is not quite what it seems; shots zoom out to reveal that a seemingly luxurious location is actually a playground, a pensioners’ bus or a toilet.
PSY himself insists that the song is just poking fun at people who try too hard to be cool, but it’s difficult not to interpret the video in the context of South Korea’s rapid rise to economic power. South Korea is what India’s neo-liberal elite wish their country could become. South Korea has wholeheartedly embraced American-style “free trade” and consumer culture, and the increasing economic inequality that inevitably comes with it. Even if PSY is satirizing the excesses of this culture, his compatriots are celebrating their arrival on the world stage and basking in the global success of Gangnam Style.
But perhaps the Indian elite should not mourn the fact that Kolaveri – lauded as India’s first real YouTube hit – has only one-tenth as many views as Gangnam. After all, unlike in South Korea, the Internet is hardly ubiquitous in India. People have devised plenty of other ways to get their music, loading hundreds of songs onto their phones for minimal costs. And as India’s strange YouTube charts show, the Internet is not a good reflection of what’s actually popular in Bollywood and beyond. Let’s not forget that India makes more films and sells more movie tickets than any other country.
2012 saw the introduction of FDI in multi-brand retail in India, bringing the country closer to the South Korean model of growth. When will the camera zoom back to reveal the sordid reality behind India’s scramble for Gangnam-style wealth?