Asian earworm songs amuse and excite foreigners inside and outside of China

By Yang Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/19 19:18:39

A cheerful beat, meaningless lyrics, a catchy melody and a quirky but hilarious dance performance are the hallmark of a good shenqu song, says one fan.  Photo: Li Hao/GT

A cheerful beat, meaningless lyrics, a catchy melody and a quirky but hilarious dance performance are the hallmark of a good shenqu song, says one fan. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Maria Novella Giorli was astounded when she first watched the video in which a man in a yellow leopard print scarf, snakeskin leisure suit, and white loafers sang the lyrics, "I have a pen. I have an apple. Uh! Apple-pen!"

It was both shocking and catchy at the same time, and for some reason, she could not look away. The video she was watching is called "Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen" (PPAP) and recently went viral online.

"PPAP is a hilarious song that makes no sense to me. However, the song, which lasts around a minute, is very catchy. I have watched it more than 20 times so far," said Giorli, an Italian who works in the social network department of a hotel in Italy.

Giorli is not the only foreigner to become enchanted by PPAP. The original song, whose music video features Japanese comedian Daimaou Kosaka as fictional singer-songwriter Piko Taro, has garnered more than 50 million views on Daimaou's official YouTube account and another close to 70 million views on entertainment portal 9GAG's Facebook page.

The video has also sparked a flood of YouTube comments, reaction videos, and parodies from viewers across the globe since its August 25 launch. Also, on September 28, famous pop singer Justin Bieber tweeted to the world that PPAP was his "favorite video on the Internet" with eight smiling faces with tears of joy.

In China, such catchy and unusual songs are often called shenqu because of their infectious beats and amusing dance routines. Aside from PPAP, the Korean song "Gangnam Style" by Psy and Chinese songs such as "Xiao Pingguo" (Little Apple) by the Chopstick Brothers are some of the catchy songs in this genre that have caught on in the foreign and Asian community.

Many YouTube vloggers have made parodies or reaction videos to Asian shenqu, and Giorli is one of them. The videos play a dual role; they act as a form of entertainment and as an introduction to different cultures.


Asian shenqu can not only amuse and entertain their listeners but also help them learn more about Asian culture. Photos: Li Hao/GT, IC

Asian shenqu can not only amuse and entertain their listeners but also help them learn more about Asian culture. Photos: Li Hao/GT, IC


Giorli was a bit confused when she first listened to PPAP.

She wondered why the man in the video was dressed in a yellow animal print suit and scarf and what pen-pineapple-apple-pen meant.

But at the same time, she was amused and couldn't help but play the video again and again.

"The more times I played the video, the more positive affections I had. To be honest, I think I got an earworm to this song. I couldn't remove the melody of the song from my head for days," she said.

For Giorli, who is a fan of weird and quirky Asian videos, four characteristics of an Asian shenqu are a cheerful beat, meaningless lyrics, a catchy melody and a quirky but hilarious dance performance.

She said it is the combination of the four elements that makes the song stick in people's brains.

Amelia Lim, a 24-year-old Malaysian, likes to do parody videos imitating celebrities, such as DJ Soda, a popular DJ in Korea, and shares the same opinion. She has listened to shenqu, such as PPAP, "Gangnam Style," and "Xiao Pingguo" hundreds of times and still cannot get enough.

According to Lim, one does not have to understand all the words in the song to love it. She only knows the meaning of a few of the lyrics in "Xiao Pingguo" but said that knowing it's a love story is enough to enjoy the song.

"Other songs, such as PPAP and 'Gangnam Style,' some of their lyrics are weird and don't make any sense to me. And some of their lyrics are full of foreign language, which I don't understand at all," said Lim.

"However, they still catch my attention and I listen to them hundreds of times due to their catchy beat and melody as well as their funny dance movements."

Austin Guidry, an American based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, is familiar with several Chinese shenqu, including such as "Zuixuan Minzufeng" (The Most Dazzling Folk Style) sang by Phoenix Legend, a popular Chinese musical duo, and "Gongxi Facai" (May you be happy and prosperous) sang by the well-known Chinese singer Andy Lau.

He doesn't know the lyrics by heart or even the song titles. But whenever he hears them playing in the Chinese shopping malls or squares, he cannot help but sing along.

Global fanbase

For some foreign audiences, only listening to shenqu is not enough. They also make several clips of shenqu, such as parody or reaction videos, and post them online.

After PPAP went viral on the Internet, many people recorded their own funny PPAP imitations, including Lim.

"I feel it's a good opportunity to do a parody since I want to share and spread laughter and entertainment to everyone," said Lim, who has a Facebook page named "Fck. It's Bacon."

"[They] can also let my followers on Facebook, who are from outside of Asia, know more about Asia."

Lim made some changes to her parody. "The main point is the dance movements and the music. I changed the lyrics and the way I dressed," she said.

In her video, she wore fake boobs and danced in a funny way. Her video got 42,400 views and 557 shares.

Giorli, a dance lover, started listening to Asian music in 2012. Realizing her love for Asian music, Giorli decided to make reaction videos.

She opened a channel named Mary SaMa on YouTube and did reaction videos to Asian songs such as PPAP, "Chick Chick" by Chinese singer Wang Rong and "Xiao Pingguo." 

"My subscribers like to share their favorite songs with me and want to see my reactions and know my thoughts. And I love to share my feelings and thoughts with my subscribers," Giorli said.

Her PPAP reaction video has received over 70,000 views so far. Besides discussing the content of the video, some of her followers commented that her reactions are cute and funny and make them want to listen to the music again and search for other Asian shenqu.

Giorli also recommends her favorite songs to her family and friends and even made a second PPAP reaction video with her mother.

"It was so funny seeing my mother's reaction to the song because she is not familiar with Asian pop music culture," said Giorli.

Just like Giorli, her mother was confused and astonished in the beginning. Her mother's reaction video received over 5,000 views.

Some of Giorli's followers said it was interesting to see her mother's reaction to the video.

A door to another world

Wang Zhiyang, a film score composer in Beijing, explained why shenqu can be a hot hit and give different feelings and emotions to their listeners.

"The way shenqu is created is different from that of other songs. It repeats its simple and catchy melody several times in one song, and the most essential part is its beat," said Wang.

"Whether it is PPAP, 'Xiao Pingguo' or 'Gangnam Style,' the speed of the song is around 130 BPM (beats per minute). According to psychoacoustics, songs at a speed of around 130 BPM, which is twice the speed of the human heart beat, can give people a sense of rhythm and pleasure. Therefore, catchy rhythms can entertain listeners and let them feel consonance."

Giorli's favorite Korean shenqu is "Gangnam Style." Her love for it has led her to listen to more Korean music, which, she said, makes her want to dance.

"I love dancing. I like dancing by myself while playing Korean music," she said.

"Later on, I started to participate in dance competitions, and I felt really happy and satisfied. They make me feel confident."

From listening to Chinese shenqu,  Giorli now wants to experience more Chinese music genres.

"I'd love to know more about China through Chinese ballads or traditional music. [Through them,] I feel that I can get closer to Chinese culture," said Giorli.

Despite the huge success of shenqu in the West, the channels through which foreigners can get to know shenqu are few. This could be the reason shenqu has not gained more global acclaim abroad, according to Giorli.

"Sometimes it isn't easy for me to find Chinese songs on YouTube unless I have Chinese friends who can help me search," she said.

"Providing a convenient channel for listeners can help more people enjoy the music - I don't want to miss any."

Newspaper headline: That’s one catchy tune!


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