Of Gangnam Style and Foreign Ear-worms


If anyone follows my facebook rantings (my apologies if so), I have in the past few weeks been kind of hard on the chubby, horse-dancing Korean phenom known as Psy. In case you live in a cave, his song and accompanying ridicu-vid “Gangnam Style” has gone from Asiaphile fanboydom to full-fledged viral ubiquity in about two weeks.

I’ve seen a giggling bunch of people watch it on an iPhone at a party, heard it playing at clubs, restaurants and apparently at weddings. In one case I heard the song’s chorus catchphrase — “Oppa Gangnam Style!”– used as an exclamation of approval by a young university student. It’s so everywhere right now that I’m not even going to bother posting a link. It’s likely being feted on at least one of your friend’s facebook walls right now. Go on. Check.

While I stand by my opinion of this truly silly song (though the video and some of the parodies are pretty funny), in the larger socio-cultural scheme of things it’s interesting to look at foreign-language songs that occasionally trickle through to the North American (and other English language) pop charts, to become massive hits, before almost inevitably fading away.

In this vein, Gangnam Style is actually notable for one big reason: it’s the first East Asian song to have reached this level of popularity — fleeting or not — in the English world. Considering the sizeable pop music machines in places like Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and China, it’s maybe a bit surprising that there hasn’t been at least one or two similar Asian ear-worms in these parts.

What does this say about North American attitudes towards Asian music? Who knows? It likely says more about those countries’ music industries having a healthy domestic (and cross-Asian) consumer base, and not needing to pander to foreign markets with gimmicky hits. At least until now.

There is certainly a long history of foreign language crossover hits, from the Italian “Volare“, to the rockified version of the Mexican tune “La Bamba“, which had a resurrection thanks to the Richie Valens biopic in the 80s. Off-hand I could think of about 10 such songs that broke out here in my own lifetime. There appears to be about one every two to three years, but not all are created equal.

The songs are generally by performers from non-English speaking countries. Usually they are sung in the singer’s language. Sometimes they are sung in English, but with that, “ow, you say…” certain foreignness that comes through regardless of tongue being used. In many cases an English version is released after the initial buzz of the foreign-language one, but I’m trying to ignore those. They always suck, and my interest comes in the cases when a song that no one understands becomes huge anyway.

People talk a lot about the “universal language” of music, but lyrics do matter. People like to sing songs, to relate to them, and sometimes even think about them. There must be a difference in terms of how English speakers listen to and appreciate foreign-language songs. There are some common themes in recent years: crazy videos, goofy dance routines and most of all insanely catchy hooks. In that sense Gangnam Style is the perfect storm.

Without further ado, here is my list. Let me know if I missed anything!


1984 – “99 Luftballons” – Nena

Back in the elementary school haze which is the 80s to me, I still recall the dulcet strains of Nena singing “99 Luftballons” in its original Deutsche. It was later translated to 99 Red Balloons, which is a bastardization as Luftballons just means “balloons” (gawd), but the original still gets played at the best 80s parties. It’s a bit campy now, sure, but unlike some songs on this list I believe this song succeeded because it’s a quality pop song of its era.

1987 – “Bamboleo” – The Gipsy Kings

First released in 1987, this song took until 1989 to hit the U.S. and is one of the few on this list with true international success, especially in Europe, where the Gipsy Kings are loved. It has longevity too, as you can still hear this song (or their other hit “Djobi Djoba”) played in internationally-minded clubs everywhere, even today. Unlike many of the gimmicky dance tunes on this list, this is real music — though it is definitely trippy to see the videos with a seemingly infinite number of earnest men playing Spanish guitars in unison.

1991 – “Rico Suave” by Gerardo

It may have some lines in English, but this hybrid Spanish rap from Ecuador-born Gerardo Meija had definitely foreign-appeal for early 90s listeners. This was of course the time when rap was hitting its first mainstream heights (or lows) with acts like Vanilla Ice, and MC Hammer. Gerardo appeared poised to bring this newly popular genre appeal to Spanish-speaking Americans. Tight jeans and ‘do rags only take you so far though and Gerardo was a one-hit wonder.

1992 – “Informer” by Snow

This track is kind of an exception because it’s performed by the very much Canadian, white-boy-rapper Snow. But its nearly unintelligible lyrics delivered in a rapid-fire Jamaican dancehall brogue so thick you could get high off it, make it qualify. And while Canadians celebrated Snow to some degree as a native Torontonian son, the song’s popularity in the U.S. (seven weeks at number 1!!!) must in some way be seen as a celebration of its foreign weirdness.

1995 – “Shut Up And Sleep With Me” by Sin With Sebastien

So maybe this German techno-joke, wasn’t a massive hit in North America, but it did get some attention — at least in my teenage, Muchmusic watching world. My admittedly nerdy group of high school friends spent our grad dance urging the DJ to play this song, which is in English but with a heavily Teutonic accent that begs to be mimicked. When he finally did we erupted like kids when the ice cream truck drives up. Bonus points here for the androgynous video that seems to bridge Marylin Manson and Lady Gaga.

1995/96 – “Macarena” by Los Del Rio

Ah, the Macarena. Who can forget this Spanish language gem? It was the butt of jokes as well as a standby at every wedding and bar-mitzvah I attended in the mid 90s. It’s one of the first foreign songs that succeeded based almost entirely on a novelty dance. I have vivid memories of the double-left-footed rabbi at my brothers own bar-mitzvah awkwardly doing the hip wiggle, in the opposite direction of the rest of the dance floor. There is video evidence somewhere. Message me for details.

1999 – “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65

Onwards and into the late 90s and the explosion of zany techno tunes from Europe. There is no shortage of choices here (Rednex, Aqua, or Scatman John anyone?), but not many made it as huge as this one did, largely on the strength of a nonsense “da boo dee” filled chorus. Yeah there is a an accented English “intro” and some other words but it was clear to everyone who raised a shot-glass to this one that it wasn’t from around here… Also of note, the digitally altered vocals, which seem to preview the autotuned pop world we currently live in. Maybe Eiffel 65 would have done better long term if their name didn’t sound like a Youtube user account?

2002 – “Asereje (The Ketchup Song)” by Las Ketchup

Shades of Macarena anyone? A Spanish song with a stupidly catchy, nonsense-sounding verse and a stupidly easy, hip shaking dance. The main difference was this one was sung by a bunch of attractive (if generic looking) Spanish women. Oh, and see Eiffel 65 for a comment about stupid names.

2004 – “Dragostea din tei” (AKA “Numa Numa”) by O-Zone

The international hit that took off thanks to a viral video of a fat guy with headphones lip-synching in front of his web-cam. How many bands take that road to stardom? Moldova‘s O-Zone may be the first. The song, in Romanian, became a bigger hit in Europe and the UK than it did in the U.S., but it still got plenty of play, and of course led to the inevitable and godawful English version.

2008 – “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman

I hesitate to add this Indian dance number, because it was mainly known due to its placement in the box office sob story hit, Slumdog Millionaire. It was also quickly “remade” by the Pussycat Dolls, which meant the original never had huge chart success in North America. It is interesting for several reasons though: one it’s the first Bollywood style song to gain any kind of traction in the English world. And two, it came at the cusp of the viral video era and inspired all kinds of amateur Youtube remakes. This phenomenon may have reached its zenith (though probably not) with Gagnam Style.

2010 – “We No Speak Americano” by Yolanda Be Cool feat. DCUP

I had no idea who sang this, and I doubt most do, or care. But apparently they are an Austrian duo, which is a nice bookending, since we started with fellow German-speaker Nena. Of course this reworking of an old Neapolitan song is not particularly Germanic, but the zippy, goofy Euro-techno beat is. By all appearances little has changed in Europop since Da Ba Dee!


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Resurrect Dead (Blogs)!


I thought for this first blog post in about three years, I would name-drop one of my favourite docs at LAST year’s Hot Docs fest in Toronto. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles was an incredible five-year labour of love for first-time feature director, Jon D. Foy. I won’t go into the plot (it’s hard not to sort of spoil it) but on the film’s site there ways to find it on DVD, iTunes or in some theatres. Do it!

Aside from the title’s relevance to this long-dormant blog, it’s a topical post for me: I just completed a one-year documentary film program, for which I directed, shot and edited a 20-minute doc called Keepers Of The Flock. It had it’s Tuesday night (May 22) at my alma mater, The New School in Greenwich Village, along with great films from four of my classmates. I hope to get some photos/videos up of the evening soon.=

It was nerve-wracking, of course, but ultimately a sheer pleasure to see my labour of love up on the big screen in front of several hundred (mostly) appreciative people. Good friends, my girlfriend, and even my mother visiting from Canada came out in support. Plus one of my film’s characters, a dedicated New York bird lover and pigeon-feeder came and participated in the Q&A. There were no technical foul ups, everyone’s work looked great. There weren’t even any nasty questions or comments from the audience! I sort of forgot we were in New York City!

The above title film is also relevant because after meeting it’s director, Mr Foy, I realized how hard it can be to support oneself and do work that you also can live with in this field. As I mentioned, Jon took at least five years to complete Resurrect Dead. He told me he cleaned houses in Manhattan to earn his rent during that time.

I hope, or rather am certain, that Jon’s success with Resurrect Dead will lead to amazing opportunities to get funding for future work or to get paying jobs or collaborations. I don’t expect all that to come out of my more modest pigeon doc, but it’s a nice inspiration — as well as a reality check.

Great films, documentaries or otherwise, never come easy. I’m quite sure of this. I don’t think they need to take five years (though some take way longer) but you have to pay in some way: sweat, blood, tears, time. Somehow it all shows up on the screen, and can make the difference between a pretty cool film, and a great piece of art.

It’s an exciting and terrifying thing to be a filmmaker in this country, or any country. Making my own work, and making it right has to be a constant priority and struggle. As for right now, I’m enjoying this moment.

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Taking the milk out of Mac’s

This one is from the weird things I notice about Ontario file.

As a born and bred Winnipegger, my earliest visits to my grandparents’ place near London, Ont. were always marked by certain things the locals said or did, that seemed a bit, well, odd.

One of those things was that anytime someone needed to go to the convenience store, they would talk about “Mac’s Milk.”  How strange, I thought. Although Seven Eleven (“Sev”) is king in Winnipeg, and presumbaly much of the west, we certainly had Mac’s stores too. The orange and red colour scheme was kind of an eye-sore, and their Froster a poorer cousin to the Slurpee, but that aside it was a pretty standard presence in my hometown. But what was up with the “milk” addition? First, sure, the store sold milk, but it wasn’t a milk specialty store or anything. Secondly, no one in Manitoba — that I had heard — called it “Mac’s Milk.”

Flash forward to 2009. Things have changed. Mac’s is now owned by Quebec’s Couche-Tard, and the kooky Scottish cat has been usurped (murdered?) by a suspiciously gallic winking owl. But nonetheless, since I moved out to Toronto over a year ago, I have occasionally heard the old “Mac’s Milk” reference, and it got me to wondering.

An early Macs Milk outlet, with that crazy tam-wearing cat

An early Mac's Milk outlet, with that crazy tam-wearing cat

So yesterday I googled. Turns out the Ontarians aren’t so nutty after all (at least on this count). The store was in fact called Mac’s Milk for the first 13 or so years of its existence. The original logo — seen here — even had the cat carrying a jug of milk.

It could seem puzzling why into late 1980s, and even today, people use a name that was officially changed in 1975. Certainly there’s a nostalgia factor. Though I’m not so sure about people around my age who were not even born when it was called Mac’s Milk.

On the other hand, who am I to speak, when I refuse to acknowledge the Rogers Centre. It’s the SkyDome people. Now, and forever.

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Holy Jumping (?)

A few years ago I encountered a strange expression from a friend for whom English was a second language. In response to something she found surprising, she exclaimed: “Holy jumping!” I looked at her askance. After all, of all the things we call “holy” in the name of shock, awe or bemusement, “jumping” doesn’t seem a likely candidate.

Flash forward to this past week, and I stumbled on the phrase again on the web. I decided to investigate further. It turns out, the expression DOES exist, and (trumpets here) it appears to be Canadian.

Googling “holy jumping” or “holy jumpin” yields all the more common, and not so common, expressions that begin that way. Among them are tried and true religious epithets like “Holy Jumping Jesus Christ,” and “Holy Jumpin Jehosaphat.” Then there are the more descriptive “Holy jumping Christ on a pogo stick!” or a favourite of mine “Holy jumping Jesus Christ on a cracker!”

Often — but not always — the phrase is adorned with addition of “Batman” at the end, a cultural reference to the caped crusader’s sidekick Robin in the 1960s TV series who was fond of similar expressions.

These phrases might be blasphemous or shocking to some, especially in more sensitive times. But while they might not refer to anything in the real world, they do conjure up a ridiculous image: that of the solemn Christian saviour leaping in the air, pogoing, or doing either on a cracker.

Other versions of the phrase crop the reference, while keeping the saltational aspect intact. See: “Holy Jumpin’ cats,” “holy jumpin jellybeans,” and another personal favourite “Holy Jumpin weasel fritters on a hot cross bun!

These versions use that classic comedic method of surprise: the listener expects some kind of blasphemous incantation upon hearing “holy jumpin” but then — whammo! — the lord’s name is replaced with cats, candies or weasel fritters.

So then, why would “holy Jumpin!” evolve as a self-contained expression, without a noun. It’s not particularly funny or surprising, it evokes no specific image of ridicule, and lastly it’s grammatically bizarre. Is the act of jumping supposed to be holy? Why not holy swimming? Holy boxing? Or holy dillydallying? There are plenty of funnier verbs out there.

But alas, language does not develop along rational lines, or based on what I find funny and clever. I found numerous examples of “Holy Jumpin” online, all of which, upon inspection were from Canadian denizens of the web. Darren Pang, a former NHL goalie from Ontario has a blog about the Phoenix Coyotes called the same. There is also Canadian female blogger who writes about the exciting world of US reality TV shows, and seems fond of the “HJ.”

Most appear from pretty random sources, like this Canadian Idol blog comment, or a post on Livejournal by a Vancouver-based cartoonist. One reference almost destroyed my Canadianism theory. It was a post on a site called Winds of Change.net, which seemed to be very American in it’s political subject matter. But I checked the author, a certain Jon Katzman, and lo and behold, he lives in Toronto.

So, my theory that this is a weird and kooky Canadian expression appears to be holding up. My question remains . . . WHY? It’s likely a derivation of the “sacriligious” epithets above. Could it be that prudish, Protestant Ontarians wanted to shorten the phrase to keep the borderline blasphemy of “holy jumpin . . .” without the pay-off of the noun at the end?

I noticed that often in print the phrase appears as “holy jumpin . . .” with the ellipses indicating the missing punchline. This is in the vein of other semi-complete phrases such as “what the . . .”; the latter also hacked by self-censorship to imply but avoid the actual use of religious or profane language.  But whereas the missing words in “what the . . .” are usually pretty clear (hell, heck, hey or f-based words) “holy jumping” seems to have taken on a life of its own, at least in certain northern climes.

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Two days to Stockholm; not the city

A little ironically in light of my last post, complaining of rude, unhelpful Toronto bike store staff…

I bought a bike.

Having to walk 1.5 hours yesterday between work, home and errands convinced me, that even once the TTC strike ends (and it will end) it would be good not to be stuck hiking the concrete jungle like this.

With the shops as busy as they are, it’s going to take the place where I bought my “horse” two days to stick it together. I’m actually quite excited to get on it. For one thing, I haven’t been a regular bike rider since my Ottawa days. For another, it’s a damn sexy machine. Check this out.

Yes. This is the Stockholm, from Quebec-based company Devinci. It’s sort of the lower-mid-range of Devinci’s hybrid or “urban” bikes. Read mountain bike frame with narrower forks and narrow slick-ish tires. Frame is aluminum, so it’s light. And you have to love the black and white two-tone styling. Class-y.

Naming the bikes after cities was kind of a stroke of genius for Devinci. But I just couldn’t see myself toodling around Toronto on a bike called the Toronto — yes it exists. Oslo and Melbourne, while cooler were out of my price range. So to Stockholm I go.

Now to make sure this bike lasts longer than my last, which I owned for a grand total of 30 days before it was snatched off my porch by lock-cutting ruffians. A $100 lock is supposed to help with that, but I think I’ll be bringing my new baby indoors.

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SOBs in Spandex

So, I’m in the market for a bike.

Seems like a reasonable thing to be in the market for. Much more reasonable than outrageously priced Toronto property or gas-guzzling cars, for example.

Unfortunately the bike shops of this fine city are apparently allied against me. There are plenty of them in this town. From cheapie operations selling used (read stolen) two-wheelers, to hipster urban biketerias and havens for road racer or mountain bike gear heads.

But entering these shops — especially the higher-end ones — is to be ignored, mocked or met with disdain. It appears that the market for expensive bicycles is so bullish, that the two-wheeled Nazis of the GTA can afford to scoff at anyone less than a millionaire triathelete in the market for a $5,000 road-rocket.

The first challenge is getting noticed. Even in some nearly-empty shops it appears hard for the staff to find me among the hanging bikes and Kryptonite u-locks in their stores. While standing around and browsing has failed to garner much response, I have developed a strategy of taking a bike from a rack, flipping it upside down and rotating the tires until someone wanders over.

Even then it’s hard to get more than a cursory “anything I can help you with?”

Once I explain the “lower end” $600-$700 price range I am interested in, any potential helpfulness seems to hiss out of the staff member like air from a punctured tube.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed about the bikes on display in today’s shops is that they all lack pedals. This is clearly to save space as they hang vertically on racks, but it also makes taking a bike for a test run pretty difficult. I have been considering bringing my own pedals and bike tools to avoid asking unhelpful apron-wearing shop staff to do it.

At one store, which I travelled 30 minutes on the Subway to visit, the owner gave me an overly high price on a last-year’s model bike then mocked me when I inquired whether the pedals would be included in that price. OK, I was kind of asking sarcastically — but still. Since when did the retailers motto become less “the customer is always right” and more “screw you, you sad shopper.”

I have also been surprised by how shocked these stores are by any suggestion that when spending $1,000 dollars on a bike, helmet, lock and assorted sundries, some kind of minor discount is in order. One shop girl, who was otherwise relatively friendly looked askance at me when I asked and said: “why would we do that?”

Buying bikes — good bikes, from good stores — in Winnipeg, there would always be at least SOME discussion of a discount, whether it was five or ten per cent. It still meant something, and was far from a bizarre question to ask.

I am aware of the facts. With the combined force of beautiful summer weather and a sudden transit strike, it is almost the perfect seller’s market. But it’s not just bikes.

I see this as a microcosm of the customer service ethic in Toronto. I have witnessed more apathetic, uninterested and downright rude behaviour by employeers to their customers in this city than in everywhere I have lived prior. Combined. Too bad, really, when the city has so much else to offer.

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See, be, see.

Checking in for my traditional quarterly update. I think I actually missed the four-month mark since my last posting, which is certainly shameful.

So where has the time gone? Well, I have been working for the past few months at the much-heralded CBC (The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Mother Corp etc) as an editorial assistant in the 24-hour Newsworld TV operation.

A cool, freaky-deeky, curvy image of the atrium of the CBC building, where I work

It is an exciting place to be. Surrounded by household names and faces from the news anchors I work with every day to the radio and sports people I see in the buildings atrium or cafeteria. The CBC is chock-full of smart, ambitious, overly stressed people. I’m sometimes unsure how I fit into any of these categories, except maybe the third.

The EA job itself is not terribly challenging, and largely unrewarding. I serve as something between a secretary, and gopher. The main duties include printing scripts and rushing them to anchors, controlling the “autocue” prompter system which allows the anchors to appear like they have an entire hour’s news memorized, and answering phones. We also have to fetch and guide guests through security and the mazes of hallways to the appropriate studio or green room.

Journalism? Hmm…what’s that? Writing? Well, I do number the pages on the scripts I deliver.

The job, at least as it applies to me, also involves a lot of painfully early wake-up calls; my shifts usually start around 5 to 5:30 am. The benefit of being released by early afternoon is counterbalanced by the necessity of either mid-day naps, or 9 pm bedtimes, or both.

Complaining? Not I! The job is meant to be an entry point for people who haven’t previously worked at the CBC, a way to get through that hallowed door and stick around long enough to have real responsibilities. I’ve already seen it happen to a few EAs who were there before me, so I know it can happen. There is definitely some dark art between networking and sucking up to get to that point, and I’m not sure I have the fortitude for it all. But we shall see.

In the meantime I’ve kept chipping away at the freelance stone, though sort of getting into some ruts there too.

The way I see it though, overall, things are not bad: I earn enough to live in the big town, I am well situated for bigger and better things at the country’s “premiere” broadcaster, and I have time off during the day to pursue the writing career.

Plus it is FINALLY getting warmer. Time to get out, buy a bike and be happy the days no longer alternate between slush and snow.


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