China ditty 'Little Apple' catches on

China's 'Little Apple' invites comparisons to 'Gangnam Style'

One tune will clearly go down as China's song of the year for 2014: "Little Apple."

The novelty single, made by a comedic filmmaking duo known as the Chopstick Brothers, might best be described as a Chinese "Macarena": It features simple yet danceable beats, repetitive lyrics and an easy-to-learn choreography routine. It has found its way just about everywhere in China and is now moving beyond.

The maddeningly catchy tune was recorded for the Chopstick Brothers film "Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon," in May. The movie was a modest hit, but the song's video — inexplicably featuring a mash-up of Adam and Eve, a man in a blond wig dressed as a mermaid and villages suffering the ravages of war — has vastly overtaken its filmic parent in popularity, tallying up more than 30 million views for the officially authorized versions on China's top two video streaming sites. Tack on unofficially uploaded versions, and the count is astronomical.

But such tallies hardly begin to capture the inescapable nature of "Little Apple," a love song with a chorus that goes, in part: "You are my little, dear little apple; however I love you, it's never too much; small red face warming my heart; lighting my life's fire, fire, fire, fire, fire...."

These days, the tune blasts from storefronts and cellphones. Uniformed elementary school students and elderly women alike perform the routine, and hundreds of thousands have uploaded videos of themselves singing and dancing.

On multiple occasions, the government has horned in on the hype. In July, the army used "Little Apple" in a promotional recruitment video, with uniformed soldiers performing the dance moves. The rendition was posted on the Ministry of National Defense website.

In the far western province of Xinjiang, which has been hit with a wave of bombings, knifings and other terrorist-style attacks for which minority Uighurs have been blamed, the song has turned up in public service television spots promoting ethnic unity. Clips of jovial-looking Uighurs and other ethnic minorities dancing to "Little Apple" alongside majority Han Chinese were playing almost hourly on Kashgar's Channel One in the fall.

In another video, police in eastern China's Anhui province recorded themselves dancing to the song, though the lyrics were modified to provide anti-theft advice. One line: "Make sure to not casually put your purse or backpack behind you."

I first heard the song while having drinks alfresco at one of central Beijing's lakes during the summer, when a rowing team performed the dance as a cool-down. At the time, I thought the choreography, full of pointing, arm flailing and hip shaking, was some sort of weird team ritual.

Soon after, I heard that now-familiar refrain three times walking down the same street. "You are my little apple...."

"Little Apple" has proved so ubiquitous, many have compared it to the gold standard of viral videos: South Korean singer Psy's "Gangnam Style." Could the Chopstick Brothers' song become as much of an ear worm as that global mega-hit, which has been viewed more than 2 billion times on YouTube?

It's hard to say, said professor Grace Wang, who studies Asian music at UC Davis.

"I do think that it has an element that would make a viral hit. It's highly coverable, it's easily parodied, and its oddness and dance moves lend itself to being parodied in a way that [transcends] linguistic barriers," she said.

But the song might find roadblocks beyond interpretation. It doesn't have "the engine" that has carried similar songs beyond their homeland because YouTube is blocked in China, she said.

Even when the ditty won the International Song prize at the American Music Awards in November, it didn't portend an immediate massive breakthrough into the U.S. market. The Chopstick Brothers, Xiao Yang and Wang Taili, danced and gave a lip-synced performance at the ceremony, but American TV audiences didn't see it; it was recorded during a commercial break of the live performance and was shown only on Chinese video-sharing sites.

In an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, Wang said he didn't know they weren't on the air. Still, just being at the awards was a big deal for a Chinese artist, he said.

Though "Little Apple" has become known to some degree in a few countries beyond China, it hasn't been terribly successful. The popular South Korean girl group T-ara collaborated with the Chopstick Brothers to record a cover of the song for the Korean market recently, and their video incorporated plenty of K-pop dance coordination and flair.

But by T-ara standards, the song tanked: It ranked No. 91 on South Korea's Gaon singles chart, the lowest of the group's career.

Compared with South Korean and Japanese pop, Chinese pop music in general has not been particularly export-oriented. Many commentators have wondered both whether China has the creative drive to generate the next "Gangnam Style" and whether the overseas base of interest is large enough to catapult such a song to global renown.

"I think there is an audience for Chinese pop music in the states," said Wang, the professor. "But it's not a large one."

Silbert is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Julie Makinen contributed to this report.

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