Gangam Style and the Last Laugh

20/12/2012 10:35 GMT | Updated 18/02/2013 10:12 GMT

One of the singles competing for the accolade of Christmas No. 1 this year is the track One Pound Fish by the eponymously named One Pound Fish Man. It has a curious provenance. Filmed by a passer-by and uploaded onto the internet, the One Pound Fish Man found fame for his advertising cries at an east London market stall. The market workers of London have a rich history. The bantering of the barrow boys has, for many years, contributed such a crucial element to the general sound of the city streets. Indeed, in Jools Holland's BBC documentary about the history of London's music, Ray Davies said that the first music he remembered from the city was not recorded, but, rather, the audible minutiae; the passing of trains, and the cries from the market stalls. But the market stall to the realms of pop celebrity is not a natural, or common, trajectory, and so why has One Pound Fish Man become the recipient of such a preternatural degree of success? Certainly, it cannot be for his 'art'; with all due respect, the singer's repetitive cries of "One pound fish" may well be appropriate when selling the product, but even when laced with the quotidian synthesised backing track, hardly constitutes a great pop single. I believe the reason behind his success is that he is deemed, by the public, a novelty.

Now, there have always been novelty records, and there always will be, but it strikes me as something of a recent sensation in which the actual artist themselves is the said novelty. The One Pound Fish Man speaks very little English, and very little is known of his private life. His real name even seems of little interest to many. During a guest appearance on the Saturday morning football chat show, Soccer AM, One Pound Fish Man was not, as is usually the procedure, interviewed, but in fact set up on a pedestal to sing his song, much to the clear amusement of all in the studio. Are we, I wonder, to use the old cliché, laughing with him, or laughing at him?

The act that he perhaps can be most aptly compared to is the South Korean singer Psy. An unknown figure in the Western world for most of his ten year career, he rose to unprecedented fame in the autumn when the video for his song Gangnam Style went viral. He appeared at the MTV awards in Frankfurt, on the Australian X-Factor, visited America, and in Britain was invited onto Jonathan Ross' ITV show where was interviewed, but appeared also in the incidental cuts performing his bizarre dance in which one seemingly acts as though one is riding a horse. To what extent, I wonder, is the Western world truly interested in Psy, and One Pound Fish Man, as artists, or even performers? The former sings in Korean, and I personally have seen little speculation into the contents of his lyrics - people seem content in the knowledge that Gangnam is a district of Seoul and the song is about that. The success of the track is a result of the dance.

The novelty records of the past were intended to be novelty records. Psy's Gangnam Style was not, and had the video been different, we would be as ignorant of him now as were six months ago. The track is a satire on the pretentious dwellers of city's district, but it hasn't resonated with the world for this reason. Similarly, we were not impressed, watching the initial footage taken at the market stall, by One Pound Fish Man's ability to sell fish, but rather amused by it. Both acts did not set out to amuse or entertain. One set out to satirise his city, the other to sell fish. There is no sense of irony. I can remember from my personal school days, the bullying children encouraging a rather overweight boy to sing and dance. He relished the opportunity to perform, and his act was greeted with great applause and laughter, and yet he couldn't see that they were laughing at him. This is a crude analogy, but it is rather the same thing. Negative celebration. Psy, and One Pound Fish Man, (the latter admittedly to a lesser extent,) have been heralded by millions, set up, and subsequently laughed at.

Both acts are set for financial success, and so in a sense they will have the last laugh. And when the novelty, inevitably, wears off and they fade back into obscurity, they will be remembered, not for their music, but the craze that followed it. While no harm or hurt is intended by the celebrators, I feel it is shameful that in this age of globalisation and mass emigration people from a visibly different culture are still laughed at for simply being different.