Theory Teacher's Blog

the psychology of a postmodern global hit

What makes a global hit? Certainly, there is no denying that the quality of the artwork is important, but is something appealing globally because its appeal is universal? If we think psychoanalytically, maybe we can discern some other factors besides quality and a supposed universality that make something a global hit.


As an example of what I mean, I’d like to analyze some popular videos on YouTube. Unlike artworks such as pop songs and novels, whose popularity is in many ways created by a large corporate media industry, the popularity of a video on YouTube would seem to depend purely on the tastes of ordinary people on the internet. So, in that sense, it is interesting to wonder why one YouTube video might become a huge global hit rather than another. Take a look at this video “Yatta!”  which originally appeared on a Japanese sketch comedy show “Silly Go Lucky” in 2001. The word “Yatta!” literally means “I did it!” in Japanese, usually with the connotation of “hooray!” or “yes!” It can also have the same sexual pun as “I did it” does in English. In the song, the vocalists express their happiness over shallow accomplishments (such as having a cute dog) in spite of Japan’s recession in the late 1990s.

After “Yatta!” circulated on YouTube, it became so popular that it was immitated by amateurs in the United States, France, and Sweden, and translated and performed by a pop music group in Argentina. Later, it even appeared on the TV show Heroes. You can find these by looking at the “related videos” on YouTube. Eventually the comedy group made a new video that shows its own global appeal and translates the lyrics.

What is so appealing about this parodic music video? Other blogs have speculated that perhaps the reason is because it is a feel good, motivational song. Others have appreciated how its irony so beautifully satirizes global apathy. But I wonder, is the music video a global phenomenon because of the universal way it delights in its own innocent obscenity? In my opinion, the answer to that question is no. Its supposed universality of enthusiastic apathy and excessive innocence can’t be the reason, because “Yatta!” is not only very Japanese — it’s excessively Japanese (and not especially universal.) It very deliberately and obviously parodies the Japanese cute-boy bands of the late 90s that exemplified the shallow, materialistic, pop culture malaise at the time. And so, I argue, this video became a global hit because of the world’s fetishization of Japan as an “other” — a fetishization that this video indulges.

But what was the time? Before I continue with my psychoanalytic reading of “Yatta!”, we need to follow Freud’s advice and consider the context for the song. The song actually reminds me very much of a conversation I had with a friend of mine named Hiroaki when I was living in Japan. In 1997, because of overspeculation by Japanese banks and because of the East Asian crash, Japan was experiencing a recession, similar perhaps to what the U.S. is about to experience now, and it is this event that the song Yatta! alludes to. However, two years after the “bubble” burst, in the spring of 1999, my friend Hiroaki pointed out something else entirely about the state of young Japanese white-collar workers. He observed that young people would stay at their companies until late at night only pretending to work — they knew they had to appear hard-working in order to get promoted, but they didn’t really know what they were supposed to work for. In his analysis, he explained that after the devastation of World War II, his parents’ generation worked very hard — almost neurotically hard — to rebuild their country. However, at the same time, they consciously repressed many of the other traditional social values of their country because of the deep shame they felt, shame not only at losing the war, but also shame about having started it in the first place. Consequently, Hiroaki argued, his generation came of age in a culture saturated with the pursuit of wealth but lacking any sense of meaning or social ethics beyond “getting promoted.” And this is why, perhaps, Japan was often observed to be the most postmodern nation in the world — if one defines the postmodern world as one saturated in meaningless yet recognizable signs.

What American and French theorists of the postmodern (Frederick Jameson, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, etc.) failed to notice (precisely because they were American and French and preferred to fetishize the Japanese rather than talk to any of them) is the painful repression of culture that was taking place — a repression that all Japanese were aware of, but did not know how to respond to. As the theorist Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, we are often aware of what we are repressing, but we rarely know what to do about it.

So, back to why this video has its global appeal. Consider first that it may have global appeal in part because the rest of the world loves to snicker at the shallowness of Japanese exuberance and material success. However, at the same time, we secretly recognize (as Barthes and Jameson did) that this postmodern exuberance is only the most extreme expression of our own French, Swedish, or American culture. After all, in parodying Japanese cute-boy bands, it also clearly alludes to iconography and style of The Village People. And this recognition in the Japanese other of our secret desire to be this exuberantly apathetic — our secret desire to be Japanese, to be excessively innocent (an innocence symbolized by the Edenic leaves), and to repress the shame of our own history — is the pleasure of the music video, a music video that is perhaps even more pleasurable if we do NOT know the lyrics than if we do. In other words, we know that it’s Japanese, and we take pleasure in the performance of shame. As two different Japanese friends each said privately in e-mails to me about this video, “How embarrassing!”

Let’s consider another example.  This global sensation that combined the “levan polkka” by the Finnish group Loituma with a clip from the Japanese anime series, Bleach. The character Orihime Inoue is spinning a negi, a Japanese vegetable similar to a leek. Even Public Radio Internationl was compelled to cover the story here.

The temptation, perhaps, is to assume that a music video becomes a global hit because of some “universality” or “worldly resonance with the zeitgeist” or “technical superiority” or “authentically human quality” or even just simply a “basic-ness.” And one could easily argue that the trance-like sound of Loituma’s polkka is universally basic to the human soul.

However, I want to make the same argument here that I made about “Yatta!” Few people knew about Loituma until its sounds were combined with the happy Asian leekspinning girl. It was the happy Asian leekspinning girl that made the Finnish song a global hit!!! The image of innocence that we simultaneously laugh at and desire to escape into is what gives us pleasure. And the images we select are of course almost always of foreign spaces. Why is Reggae the global music par excellance? Because of its Pan-African politics? I don’t think so. It’s a beach party, ya’ll. It’s popular now for the same reason that the Caribbean so fully captured the European imagination four hundred years ago.


March 1, 2008 - Posted by | global, Japan, music


  1. […] questions about the relation between readers and a text–a relation that I have blogged about earlier here in a post about a Japanese comedy skit that was more popular outside of Japan than inside it. […]

    Pingback by Slumdog Millionaire « Theory Teacher’s Blog | January 31, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] furniture, etc. I’ve written about the American fascination with Japanese otherness before [here]. This is what Freud calls “transference” when you redirect your libidinal desires or […]

    Pingback by Found in Tranference « Theory Teacher’s Blog | April 22, 2009 | Reply

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