Comedy is a tough thing to translate across cultures. At least, that is, certain kinds of comedy. People falling down, groin kicks, and animals doing silly things are all pretty easy ways to get a rise out of a human being. Irony, satire, and parody are all a bit more tricky… especially when your target appears to the innanity of euro-trash dance music.
Billed as a sort of Scandanavian Lonley Island, Ylvis’ thin discography of one-off singles includes, to date, goofy ballads about Stonehenge, goofy ballads about dubstep drops, and rap parodies about the physiological characteristics of the ya-ya. The common denomenator of each of these is an offbeat sensibility, familiar to anyone who’s seen SNL. But, there’s something intangible that’s lost in the cultural translation. It’s like being told a joke by a foreign exchange student who keeps emphasizing the wrong note. The idea is funny, but something’s lost in execution.
“The Fox,” breakthrough hit by the Norwegian duo, occupies a very unusal place on the comedic spectrum, though, and is completly unlike their other English-language tracks. Musically, it fundamentally nails the formula it’s attempting to mock. This is one of the most peculair things about the song but also helps explain why, I think, it’s achieved the rarified level of success that it has. The song is downright danceable. “The Fox” is so on point with this sound, in fact, that it’s sonically indistinguishable from any number of top-100 also-rans from the last five years. In other words, unlike, for instance, a Weird-Al style-parody, “The Fox” is music that, at least some, people would want to hear on a repeated basis… or at least while dancing irratically.
Then, of course, there are the lyrics.
Dog goes woof
Cat goes meow
Bird goes tweet
and Mouse goes squeak
These are the lyrics to a children’s song. Unlike most comedic music, there’s not an ounce of irony, smirking, or meanness to anything happening in “The Fox.” Or, at least none that’s discernable to American ears. The notion of setting children’s lyrics to contemporary pop music is actually nothing new (big shouts to Kidz Bop.) But, that excercise is typically defined by 1) cover songs and 2) a total neutering of the source material. “The Fox” does neither, providing original (I guess) lyrics on top of a polished and hard-charging dance track. To me, this begs the question: Why is this supposed to be funny?
Of course, “The Fox” is funny… at least for a moment. Hearing human beings make rediculous noises isn’t too far off from the universal language of groin kicks, after all. But it’s not so hilarious that it should take the country by storm, is it? Like the titular character, the success of “The Fox” is a bit of a mystery.
Taken completely at face-value, I can’t help but think that the appropriate genre, if there must be one, for “The Fox” is not Comedy but Children’s Music. When Ylvis break into the song’s signature “fox noises” I cannot help but picture a classroom full of 4-year-olds going gleefully bonkers. As children’s music, “The Fox” is bulletproof.
As comedy, however, it’s much harder to assess. I get the joke but I’ve laughed more while referencing the song than I ever came close to while listening. That it’s a certifiable pop-hit may be the biggest joke of all. No one could have predicted the song’s success, but now that America has fallen in love with “The Fox” it takes on another, more meta, layer. If there’s anyone out there who unironically loves the song—sorry, joke appears to be on you. Unless you happen to be in pre-K.
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