“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever,” the immortal David St. Hubbins says—non-ironically—in Spinal Tap. And truer words never have been spoken about the inscrutable boundary between brilliance and b.s. in a self-consciously “stoopid” pop song.
“The Fox,” a parody tune by Norwegian brothers and multi-media stars Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker, collectively known as Ylvis, definitely falls in the former camp, outdoing even this summer’s other sterling example in this timeless category of pop novelty, “Blurred Lines.”
Thanks to a charmingly low-budget clip that became the viral video of the moment, “The Fox” is winning attention worldwide—11 million YouTube hits and counting—and drawing comparisons to a similar sensation from 14 years (or is that 14 months?) ago, Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”
But Psy always seemed to be trying too hard, making himself the butt of his own joke, which was one-dimensional at best. Plus, he had a pretty short shelf life in terms of the number of times you could hear that hooky ditty before growing sick to death of it. (Many people would say “once was enough!”)
These wacky Ylvisåker boys actually have much more in common with another modern musical-comedic duo, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. This is true in terms of a seemingly simple joke that actually can be taken as deep as you care to go. (The “Old MacDonald had a farm” preschool litany of barnyard/zoo sounds in “The Fox” becomes something else when you pause to consider the sexual connotations of “foxy” and the fetishism in some corners of people dressing as animals—hello Flaming Lips and your army of Plushies!—and then it spirals even further into the rabbit hole if you pause to ask whether the various animals in the Ylvis menagerie are metaphorical of personality types and prejudices in the Animal Farm sense, until you finally wind up with an existential dilemma: “If the fox says something in the forest but nobody is there to hear it, did it really say anything at all?”)
The “silly song of substance” thing also is true in the strictly musical sense: “The Fox” is a sophisticated and flawless piece of modern dance-pop craftsmanship, produced by the Norwegian team of Stargate, whose hit-making resumé includes tracks by Rihanna, Ne-Yo, Beyoncé, Drake, and Katy Perry, to name just a few of many heavyweights. Like “Blurred Lines,” its hook is impossible to forget from midway through the first time you hear it, and its groove is irresistibly motivating. But it lacks the more troubling odor of sexism, as well as the presence of that Canadian wannabe-Timberlake, Robin Thicke.
Like the Conchords boys, the Ylvisåkers seem to be making fun of the very notion of themselves being pop stars (though photos of them without the animal makeup show that they’re much closer to the current ideal than McKenzie and Clement ever were; in comparison, the brothers are Bieberesque).
There also is another layer of musical self-reference—a sly wink and a nod to chart-toppers past—via the fact that the answer to the question,“What does the fox say?” is a series of nonsensical chants delivered in the powerhouse choruses, just like countless great wordless hooks throughout the history of recorded pop music. Certainly “Ding-da-da-ding ding-ding-dingeringeding!” and “Cha-chacha-cha cha-cha-cha-choff!!” deserve their place beside “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom!” and “Mmmbop, ba duba dop!”
Am I over-intellectualizing an essentially simple pleasure here? Perhaps. But a definite pleasure it is, as you should see for yourself.