So I’ve been sitting here with a cold, laughing my head off, having just discovered a new band. When I say ‘new band,’ I mean, to me they’re new. They have a YouTube video, after all, with over a hundred million hits. It’s what they’re known for. You’ve all probably all seen it many times over. It’s the video “What does the fox say?”
I’ve heard they did the video mostly as a joke, and that’s quite possible. But it has all the qualities I’ve noticed in song after song of theirs: an incredibly catchy tune, a fun video, a mock serious lead singer (with a terrific pop voice), and head scratching lyrics. I mean, what? What does the fox say? It’s like a Sesame Street video, as written by Christopher Durang and produced by Weird Al.
But again, boy, is that tune catchy.
Ylvis is basically two Norwegian guys, brothers, Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker. Vegard’s older by four years; are now in their mid-thirties. They added a third guy, Calle Helvevang-Larsen for their TV show Ikveld med Ylvis (Tonight with Ylvis). They’re basically a variety comedy act. Terrific musicians, with their own off-beat sense of humor.
They’re very Norwegian, though, in their approach to comedy, and often in the subjects they’re attracted to. I wonder if American or international fans really get a lot of what they’re about. For example, there’s this. They’re on the set of their TV show, and then the other two leave Vegard alone, and he looks soulfully at the camera and sings “You raise me up.” You know that song, a favorite of Josh Groban, covered many times by many other artists. Originally, though, it was written and recorded by Secret Garden, a Norwegian band. Well, Norwegian/Irish.
Okay, so Vegard’s singing, and suddenly he turns, and starts singing to a middle-aged blonde woman (who can barely keep a straight face). What? Who? Well, it’s Erna Solberg. Prime Minister of Norway. Imagine Chris Rock or Will Farrell singing “You raise me up” to Barack Obama. I just think that’s a very funny bit.
And the great thing about is that Vegard has a lovely voice. (So does Bård). And even when he’s singing this pretty uplifting song absolutely straight, you know there’s a catch; something funny is going on, even if we don’t get it yet.
I also love the satire of their song (and video) “Jan Egeland”. The real Jan Egeland is one of the most respected politicians in Norway. Heck, in the world. Here’s his Wikipedia page. An indefatigable worker for peace and human rights. An extraordinary diplomat. Hard to think of an American equivalent, except maybe Jimmy Carter. But it’s essentially impossible to imagine an American comedy rock band doing a song with these lyrics:
“When he’s sad, he goes to funerals,
in unusually heavy rain.
Large amounts of water in his face, but that doesn’t hide his pain.
He breaks down just like a homo,
And starts crying just like a girl,
But I guess you can cry, and still be a man, when your day job is saving the world.”
And no, the song is not a slam on Egeland. The tone is triumphant, the intent is sympathetic and reverential. With those lyrics. (And Jan Egeland is said to love the song–thinks it’s hilarious).
The Cabin (quick content warning before you link to the video) is similar, though again, I think it’s hilarious; it’s funnier if you know the cultural context. Norwegians (like Utahns, come to think of it), love their “hyttas“–rustic cabins. They love getting away to the mountains, love the getaway thus provided. At least Norwegian guys do–it’s no secret that some Norwegian women are less enthusiastic. The song has a lovely R&B feel, and it’s basically a love song, a paean to rustic simplicity and authenticity.
“Sixty square meters of heaven on earth, a tiny wooden paradise.
My own private pinewood Taj Mahal,
except for the shape and the size.”
The song also, of course, makes abundantly clear why his wife hasn’t joined him there for ten years–it’s tiny, freezing, unsanitary. But it’s his Taj Mahal. And it’s completely his. Except for having to share it with, like, eight family members.
I also love their Christmas parody song, “Da vet du at det er jul“, which, sadly, you have to speak Norwegian to get. But it’s great, every Christmas cliche imaginable. And then quite horrible realities intrude.
More accessible to non-Norwegian speakers is “Stonehenge“. in many respects, it’s like “What does the fox say?”, in that it asks an unanswerable question, and also has an insanely catchy tune. (Bit of a content advisory for that video too, sorry). I mean, seriously, why did they build Stonehenge? And wouldn’t you give your car to find out the answer? Even a really reliable Honda Civic?
Finally, let me recommend “Someone like me.” It’s a really pretty, sort of Burt Bacharach-esque love song. With a really nasty dub-step beat. Really funny stuff.
Who can Ylvis be compared to? Lonely Island comes to mind, a band Ylvis say they admire, but hadn’t heard of until very recently. I think more of Flight of the Conchords, the New Zealand comedy rock duo. Check out their Hiphopopotomus vs. Rhymenoceros. Much of the same goofy fun, combined with musicianship. Or maybe a bit of Stephen Lynch.
But Ylvis isn’t any kind of copycat band. They’re uniquely, goofily Norwegian; internationally minded, sophisticated, exceptionally bright, influenced by musical styles from everywhere, but also with their own take on what’s funny. Check ’em out. Except you already have.