Ritchie Valens … Chubby Checker … Elvis … Michael Jackson … Psy?

Psy, electropop sensation and international phenomenon, reigns YouTube with over 221+ million (yes … million) views and 2+ million “likes” with his hit single “Gangnam Style.” Does he compare to other notable sensations?


I have a challenge for you. Think about this for a moment:

Can you name an artist who has transcended cultural barriers, who writes, produces and records his own material, who has created a dance phenomenon craze courtesy of a massively popular tune and done it in a foreign language? And just for the fun of it, let’s toss in ultra-popularity as an added bonus. Ready? Go. Hit me with your best shot.

I’ll toss out a few to get the ball rolling to see if there’s any comparison:

  • Ritchie Valens: Self-taught musician and one of the rock ‘n’ roll pioneers (not to mention an influence to the likes of Carlos Santana, Los Lobos, Selena and many more), “La Bamba” was big, sung in Spanish and hugely popular in its day. But … it wasn’t original (it was originally based on a Mexican folk song) and it never spawned a dance phenomenon. (Interestingly, Valens didn’t speak much Spanish and had to learn the lyrics to “La Bamba” in order to record it.)
  • Chubby Checker: Talk about your dance craze, “The Twist” was sweeping in its take over of America. There’s no denying its legacy … but it wasn’t Checker who wrote it, the song wasn’t original (it was not only recorded previously, but was a previous hit) nor was his “The Twist” an original dance. Checker expounded on Hank Ballard’s earlier R&B hit. Plus, no international recognition to speak of.
  • Elvis Presley: Elvis might be everywhere (and still is … and he might need boats, too) with multi-cultural influence, irrepressible dance moves and overwhelming popularity that still reigns today, but he never wrote any of his recorded tunes.
  • The Beatles: Undeniably a corner stone of rock ‘n’ roll history, but where is that international flavor? “Michelle” you say? Well, it was an original song, a Grammy award winner and internationally popular, complete with foreign lyrics. But “swaying” isn’t a dance craze … and it was by a group, not a single artist.
  • Michael Jackson: MJ is the only artist who comes close to the criteria above. But … where’s that foreign tune? He doesn’t have that multi-lingual or foreign language track in his arsenal of songs, either.

Park Jae-sang (better known as “Psy”) is all of these. Boston University and Berklee College of Music taught, this South Korean is a phenomenon in the Korean pop circles, regardless of the fact he rather shuns — and is a polar opposite of — the K-pop brand. Not only comedic in his performances and videos, he wasn’t the perfect child by any means and has had a bit of a checkered past.

But … to my points:

  • Transcended cultural barriers? Check. He’s a South Korean and also speaks fluent English.
  • Does he write, produce and record his own material? Check.
  • Dance craze phenomenon? Check. Courtesy of his internationally famous, viral and mega-popular “Gangnam Style” which has infected the radio airwaves, clubs and YouTube (to the unbelievable 221+ million hits — that’s right: more than 221,000,000 million – and counting), television and popular culture like nobody’s business. And if it hasn’t yet, be prepared to dance to it at the next wedding you attend. Mark my words.
  • Ultra-popularity? You betcha. YouTube. Cemented Korean-pop cultural figure. The Ellen Degeneres Show. NBC’s The Today Show where he taught the anchors his moves. Saturday Night Live. More to come.
… whereas it might sound typically cheezefest on a first listen, the song is infectious and can become an earworm rather quickly.

Is Psy a one trick pony? Not overseas. He’s been popular there for more than a decade. While rather unique, “Gangnam Style” might still position Psy in the novelty section as his only hit here in the states. And whereas it might sound typically cheezefest on an initial spin, the song is infectious and can become an earworm rather quickly.

By the way: Did you come up with any artist who falls into the categories I listed above? I didn’t think so.

Oppa Gangnam Style, indeed.



Photo Credit: YG Entertainment

15 Comments on “Ritchie Valens … Chubby Checker … Elvis … Michael Jackson … Psy?

  1. Los del Rio – Macarena… Technically, I suppose it is a duo, not a solo artist, but that hits so close to your criteria I am surprised you didn’t mention it.

    And I would argue that Michael Jackson actually qualifies here. Thriller was a massively popular song and you can still see the dance moves popping up to this day. And on that point, if you consider the CPDRC prison video, that was Michale Jackson producing a hit in a foreign language, just not one that was foreign to you. He also wrote and produced. And let’s be honest, he had the kind of popularity that Psy can never dream of.

    Also, further reading for anyone interested in the Psy phenomenon. There is a really interesting article at the Atlantic on the message of Gangnam Style.

    • Close, but no prize, Brett.

      “Macarena” is generally known to be based on two previous pieces: “Trabajando En Las Minas De Pan Duro” (a Spanish children’s song) and “Tengo Una Pena” from the group Desmadre 75. The lyrics to the song, however, are original. And there’s no denying the song was a multi-international crossover hit in the 90’s … and by a group.

      There are quite a few artists, duos and groups who meet many of the criteria I’ve set (most English speaking), but they don’t match all that Psy has captured. Two big differences about Psy’s situation: His native language is something other than English and really quite amazing is the fact it came from somewhere other than the USA. That happens rarely.

      I mentioned MJ above. The biggest problem there is that most of his music was not written by him – much of it was collaborations.

      Now … if you mention Billy Ray Cyrus and “that” song, we’re going to have words …

  2. Michael Jackson recorded at least one song in Spanish — and his pronunciation is flawless.

    For a 2001 special edition of his “Bad” album, Jackson recorded “Todo mi amor eres tú,” a translated version of his hit “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” He performed it as a duet with Siedah Garrett. He also sang the song in French (also included on the new release of BAD25). In addition, Michael incorporated many languages in his songs, among them:

    Swahili: “Liberian Girl” (also included on Bad) starts with the Swahili language phrase “Naku Penda pia, Naku Taka pia, Mpenziwe!” (I love you too, I want you too, my love!), which was sung by South African singer Letta Mbulu.

    Russian: “Stranger in Moscow” concludes with a narrative, spoken in Russian, by a KGB interrogator. The narrative, translated into English is, “Why have you come from the west? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”.

    Spanish (again): The music video for “They Don’t Care About Us” was shot on location in the Dona Marta shantytown in Salvador and in the favela of Complexo do Alemao in Rio de Janeiro as per Jackson’s wish to highlight the problems of the region. It featured 200 members of the cultural group Olodum, “who swayed to the heavy beat of Salvador’s ‘samba-reggae’ music”. The media interest surrounding the music video exposed Olodum to 140 countries around the world, brought them worldwide fame and increased their credibility in Brazil. At the beginning of the video, a Brazilian woman says “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente” which means “Michael, they don’t care about us.”

    Speaking of that music video in The New Brazilian Cinema, Lúcia Nagib observed:
    “When Michael Jackson decided to shoot his new music video in a favela of Rio de Janeiro … he used the favela people as extras in a visual super-spectacle. The interesting aspect of Michael Jackson’s strategy was the efficiency with which it gave visibility to poverty and social problems in countries like Brazil without resorting to traditional political discourse. In 2009, Billboard described the area as “now a model for social development” and stated that Jackson’s influence was partially responsible for this improvement.”

    In addition, Michael spoke a few words to his fans in their native language in the various countries he gave concerts in throughout the world.

    I can’t think of any other entertainer who transcended more cultural barriers than Mr. Jackson. He was beloved and his songs and dances are known world-wide. As for creating a world-wide dance phenomena, the Thriller dance is currently performed by far more people each year than in all the thousands upon thousands of performances of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. His death was mourned in Mexico City by a mass flashdance of 13,000 people doing the Thriller dance.

    So I believe, Michael Noble, that you should stand corrected. Yes?

    • Ara:

      See my response to Brett above.

      Most of your notations were songs MJ re-recorded in other languages. Outside of “Hey, sexy lady” everything Psy sings is in Korean. (And … his native language is Korean. He speaks fluent English.)

  3. Psy personally handpicked that kid dancing at the beginning of the video – the boy’s a Korean Idol contestant impersonating Michael Jackson.

    And yes, Psy was inspired by the man himself – Michael Jackson.

  4. Don’t see any real point with this article, but I will join in to say a few things.

    “…most of his music was not written by him – much of it was collaborations. ”

    Goes to show how little you know about Michael Jackson – or are you in denial? I will “toss out a few to STOP the ball rolling” at the end of this message.

    1. The rest of your article is not even that interesting to be honest and I only clicked into it because of MJ’s name. It turns out it is just someone writing about a personal choice in something…I don’t even know the person you are talking about, but happy for them, whoever they are, though I stopped the vid before a minute passed, because it sounds like many other techno-type stuff aimed toward younger crowd. Nothing special or different!

    “MJ is the only artist who comes close to the criteria above”

    2. Are you having a laugh? Who cares about languages, (Witch seems to be the weapon you are using to justify something that actually doesn’t exist) when it comes to singing, (though MJ has recorded in French and Spanish) – who really cares about languages if they like a song anyway? Did Michael’s none-English speaking fans, (who are of every race, religion, culture, language and age) across the globe care whenever they went out to buy his music? NO! He reached them ALL with ONE language, anyway. Fact! Different scenario – Same principle!

    3. FYI, Michael Jackson wrote the MAJORITY of his songs and collaborations were done for variety and having fun while doing it – just like many other artists do.

    4. Michael Jackson wrote, produced, composed, directed, choreographed, set off dance-style crazes which are emulated to this day by both kids and adults alike the world over – created a unique, iconic fashion range that is instantly recognisable & regularly imitated by all age groups the world over & is forever embedded in entertainment history.

    5. He has broken more records than any other artist – past or present – Is the ‘Most Decorated Artist in History’ – and has many entries into the Guinness Book of World Records – which includes being ‘The Most Successful Entertainer of All Time’. He is also “The Biggest Selling Artist in History”.

    A poet, painter and drawer and Humanitarian – (Yes, research it)…and more, but I think you should get my drift by now.

    Anyway, come back and try again when whomever have reached MJ’s global status – phenomenon level, influential level & level of achievements … When everyone – even those in the remotest parts of the world – instantly recognises a name – a name that instantly resounds…you know, like *The Gloved One – *The King of Pop – *The King of Rock, Pop & Soul – MJ …you know…A house-hold name …simply – Michael Jackson.

    No, Michael Jackson doesn’t “come close” – Michael Jackson simply surpasses them all!

    No, this wasn’t a “challenge” at all!

  5. Sorry but you are in error. Michael Jackson recorded in both French and Spanish and I’ve read an article from his Spanish tutor that said he worked and worked on his pronunciation until it was damn near perfect, like a native speaker. You need a re-write, my friend.

  6. Just for fun, have any of you seen U.S. comedian George Carlin’s assessment of Michael Jackson versus Elvis, etc.? It’s hilarious and available on YouTube.

    It’s only one minute long and well worth watching, believe me.

    • Oh yes, I’ve seen that George Carlin countdown of the greatest entertainers.
      What he said about Elvis is soooo true.

      MJ rocks!

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