The Syncher, Not the Song

Dance Dance Revolution, Ex–Doom Metal Musicians, Romanian Celebrities, Boy-Band Fluff, Japanese Internet Forums, Flash-Animated Cats, Bad Transliteration, Steaming Plates of Fettuccine, Too-Small Glasses, Fear of Cockroaches, The Star Wars Kid, The Electric Slide, The New Cultural Order

The Syncher, Not the Song

Douglas Wolk
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In 2003, the Moldovan-Romanian boy band O-Zone released DiscO-Zone, their second or third album, depending on how you count. Their earlier Eastern European hits like “Despre tine” were the sort of thing you’d play an advanced level of Dance Dance Revolution to: fast, formulaic, useful for dancing, nothing special. This time, though, they sang a song that changed the world, “Dragostea din Tei.”

O-Zone’s Dan Bălan had previously been in the doom metal band Inferialis; sensing that Backstreet Boys clones were where the money was, he formed the first version of O-Zone with Inferialis’s singer, then ditched him to form a lineup with two much prettier dudes, Arsenie Todiras and Radu Sârbu. For a while, O-Zone mk. II were major celebrities in Romania—“Dragostea din Tei” wasn’t even the first single from DiscO-Zone there.

Written by Bălan, it’s a brilliant piece of boy-band fluff. There’s scarcely a second without some extraordinary hook, starting with the wordless keening at the beginning, flipping back and forth between someone’s tenor and falsetto voices: “Ma-ia-hii, ma-ia-huu, ma-ia-haa, ma-ia-ha-ha.” Then the beat comes in: synthesized disco octave bass and an F-C-G-Am riff that underpins every part of the song in one way or another. The lyrics of “Dragostea din Tei” are as detailed and nonspecific as the words to “I Want It That Way” or “It’s Gonna Be Me.” They seem to be one side of a phone conversation; the gist is “Oh, hi there, I’m an outlaw type and I beeped you; I hope you will allow me to make you happy, but actually I don’t expect anything. Also, you want to go but you won’t take me.”

Just when the first verse has meandered almost to the point of getting lost, we are unshackled, de-blindfolded, and shoved out of the van into brilliant sunlight, and realize that the verse was just distracting us until we could be plunged into the chorus. It’s as big as an abandoned government building, and in precisely the range that huge legions of drunk people can sing easily. “Vrei sa pleci dar nu ma, nu ma iei / Nu ma, nu ma iei, nu ma, nu ma, nu ma iei,” it starts. The title of “Dragostea din Tei” is apparently difficult to translate—it means something like “love among the linden trees” but also alludes to a hipster neighborhood in Bucharest and to first love. The video involves O-Zone romping around on the wing of an airplane.

“Dragostea din Tei” was a hit in Romania in late 2003; the next February, it became the No. 1 record in Italy. But the Italian hit wasn’t O-Zone’s version; it was a cover by the Romanian/Italian duo Haiducii (“The Outlaws”—as in the song’s line “sunt eu, un haiduc”), who performed it as a badly sung boy-and-girl duet. The original recording promptly spread across the rest of Europe like an oil slick. By the summer of 2004, it was inescapable anywhere on the continent; even in the U.K., it peaked at No. 3. The Japanese label Avex picked it up for release, too.

This is where the cat comes in. Japanese internet geeks like to make little illustrations with typed symbols; on a very popular forum called 2channel, there’s a cat a lot of people draw with them (see below). The cat’s famous catchphrase is “omae mo na,” which means, in essence, “you too!” He’s consequently known as Mona.

In Japan, Avex released “Dragostea din Tei” under the title “Koi no Maiahi” (“Passion’s Maiahi”—the second word’s the transliteration of the yodel at the beginning of the song), and a fan known as Ikari made a Flash animation video for it, starring a cat who looked a lot like Mona. Ikari’s video is based on mishearing the Romanian lyrics as English or Japanese lyrics: salut is accompanied by an image of a monkey (saru in Japanese), fericirea (“happiness”) is panchira (“looking up a skirt”), and best of all, nu ma nu ma iei sounds like noma noma yay—or “drink! drink! yay!” Avex jumped on the video’s popularity and started selling merchandise depicting “Noma neko” (“Noma cat”). Inevitably, there were howls of outrage from Mona buffs—and, reportedly, death threats against the head of Avex.

The Ikari video quickly spread beyond Japan; evidently inspired by it, an Oregonian who calls himself Yansa made a pretty amazing Flash video of his own, based on mishearing the lyrics in American English (mi-amintesc de ochii tai became now mintesque, tha Okie play, accompanied by images of sprigs of mint and the Oklahoma! soundtrack). The “nu ma nu ma” bit features dancing gnomes; “fericirea” is steaming plates of fettucine. And there the story might have ended—for Americans, “Dragostea din Tei” might have been a little meme confined to hardcore webophiles over a few weeks, like “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” or the LiveJournal Batgirl-drawing thing.

Allegedly, though, Ikari’s animation was also the vector that carried “Dragostea din Tei” to a nineteen-year-old kid named Gary Brolsma in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. He liked the song; he made a video of himself sitting in his chair in front of his computer, dancing to “Dragostea din Tei,” and posted it as a Flash video to a site called Newgrounds on December 6, 2004. He called it “Numa Numa Dance.”

Brolsma’s video singlehandedly justifies the existence of webcams. His squarish head and shoulders are in the center of the shot. He’s got a short haircut, glasses that are slightly too small for him and reflect his computer’s monitor, and cheap headphones; he’s sitting in a dismal-looking suburban room. And he is going for it: rolling his eyes back in his head, shaking his face, shooting his hands into the air with the beat, saluting along with the word salut, gesturing grandly, lip-synching the whole thing with his grand opera of a mouth, flirting with the camera, utterly given over to the music. It’s a movie of someone who is having the time of his life, wants to share his joy with everyone, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. In other words, it’s a movie of a total geek. Also, it’s only ninety-nine seconds long, which is, coincidentally, the exact length that it’s capable of being funny—it cuts off in the middle of a verse.

No matter. Within a few weeks, millions of people had watched “Numa Numa Dance.” Brolsma appeared on Good Morning America; he sent Newgrounds a revised version of the clip, without the cutaway gags he’d inserted (like a quick image of some feta cheese during “fericirea”). But by the time Alan Feuer and Jason George wrote about him in the New York Times, at the end of February 2005, he’d grown sick of the attention and refused to talk to them. Heartbreaking graf from Times story: “These days, Mr. Brolsma shuttles between the house and his job at Staples, his family said. He is distraught, embarrassed. His grandmother, Margaret Telkes, quoted him as saying, just the other day, ‘I want this to end.’”

It was only beginning.

Brolsma’s video, Dan Bălan apparently realized, could be the thin end of a wedge to break O-Zone in America. He tried to piggyback onto Numanumamania, using the O-Zone name to record a slicked-up English-language version of the song with a throaty-voiced co-singer named Lucas Prata. The chorus of “Ma Ya Hi,” as the ghastly English version was called, goes “When you leave, my colors fade to gray / Oo-aa-oo-aa-ay / Oo-aa-oo-aa-oo-aa-ay / Every word of love I used to say / Now I paint it every day.” Being open to interpretation is a healthy thing for a boy-band song; making no sense isn’t, and “oo-aa-ay” doesn’t have the juicy baby-talk singability of “nu ma nu ma nu ma iei.” “Ma Ya Hi” briefly pressed its nose up against the bottom of the American charts, then disappeared. The song had already taken O-Zone as far as they were going to go; shortly thereafter, the band announced that they were breaking up.

But the Numa Numa Dance was better advertising for the universality of “Dragostea din Tei” than anything a record label could have paid for. Musicians all over the world started recording their own versions of the song. The Spanish group Los Morancos rewrote it as “Marica tú,” and mangled the Romanian chorus into “fiesta, fiesta, y pluma, pluma gay”: a plea to party and come out of the closet. (There’s a clip of a South American TV show where they sing it with a horde of disco dancers behind them doing the Numa Numa Dance.) The Brazilian DJ Latino borrowed the melody for “Festa no Apê.” The Japanese female impersonator Maeda Ken made a Eurodisco-style recording and video of “Koi no Maiahi Chiwawa,” a medley incorporating “Dragostea din Tei.” Singapore’s Jocie Kok recorded a rewritten version, “Bu Pa Bu Pa,” about overcoming fear of cockroaches. The Italian trailer for Chicken Little featured C. L. doing something very much like the Numa Numa Dance to “Dragostea din Tei.” There are Dutch versions, Hebrew versions, Russian versions.

Most of all, there are homemade versions—not of “Dragostea,” as such, but of “Numa Numa.” In early 2005, upload-your-own-video sites like Google Video and YouTube started to have a significant public presence, and suddenly the big difference between Brolsma’s video and, for instance, the infamous video of a kid practicing his light-saber moves became apparent. Everyone laughed at the Star Wars Kid; everyone wanted to be the Numa Numa Guy—to feel that un-self-consciously self-conscious joy he felt in his body, flailing around in his chair and lip-synching a stupid pop song in a language he didn’t understand.

Type numa numa into Google Video’s search box, and you’ll get well over 400 hits; in YouTube’s, you’ll get over 1,500. Virtually all of the results are cut from a single template. A kid, in a bedroom or living room somewhere, sits in front of a computer with a webcam perched on top of it. “Dragostea din Tei” plays in the background, and the kid lip-synchs to it, duplicating every facial expression and motion of Gary Brolsma’s Numa Numa Dance, except that the kid keeps breaking into a smile. Everyone knows how it goes—it’s the internet’s equivalent of the Macarena or the Electric Slide, except that it involves facial gestures too. (And how many people can say they’ve invented a dance that everyone can do?)

The youngest Numa Numa performers are about two (“I’m doing it, Kayla!,” one little girl yells to her big sister as she watches Brolsma on the screen and flings her hands into the air. “Me and the guy are doing it together! Ma ya heeee…”), the oldest I’ve seen are a couple who look to be in their fifties, but most look to be between thirteen and eighteen years old. The gender balance is roughly equal. There are a few overt parodies of Brolsma—in one, for instance, his gestures are duplicated by a guy in a Darth Vader suit and mask, breathing like the Sith Lord. Generally, though, the Numa Numa people are simply doing exactly what Brolsma did, marking themselves as being just like him. Sometimes they do the Numa Numa in groups of two or three or six; more often, they do it on their own, carefully setting up the shot to look as much like Brolsma’s as possible, except with their own domestic scene in the background. They don’t just lip-synch to the O-Zone recording but to whatever version of “Dragostea din Tei” happens to be available. It’s like The Family of Man with crappy webcams in place of Edward Steichen’s camera.

Watching one after another—and Brolsma was right, there’s no way to sustain interest in any of them for more than ninety-nine seconds, but it’s very easy to watch the opening sequences of dozens in a row—they start to look less like an infectious joke than like a new cultural order. These kids aren’t mocking the Numa Numa Guy; they’re venerating him. They are geeks honoring the King of the Geeks, and they’re beautiful to see, because they’re replicating and spreading his happiness. They’re following a ritual that’s meaningful if not yet venerable: learning the dance, lip-synching the song, documenting their performance just so, making it available for the world to see. And they probably have no idea what the words mean, as if that mattered. “Dragostea din Tei,” not even the words but the sound of the recording, is now part of the fabric of the internet. It’s bypassed the monolithic American entertainment industry to become a standard; the very few records it’s sold in the States are accidental by-products of its actual significance, as a mechanism for amateurs to show their love without a hint of the shame that overcame their hero.

In 2006, O-Zone’s Arsenie Todiras, now calling himself Arsenium, was chosen to represent Moldova at the Eurovision Song Contest in Athens in May. He’ll be singing a song of his own composition, “Loca.” Dan Bălan has left the boy-band sound behind and formed a rock group, called simply Balan; there’s footage of them playing a bloodless grunge version of “Dragostea din Tei” in front of a screaming Russian crowd. Today, a pair of fourteen-year-old girls in Japan and a tough-looking Eastern European dude with a little mustache and an American middle-school girl with a bad asymmetrical haircut and a nine-year-old boy in a muscle tee and a male college student in terrible drag with greasepaint eyebrows all filmed themselves performing Brolsma’s choreography, and uploaded the results. Someone far away, they knew, would see them in their homes, understand their pride in geekdom, and love them for it.

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