Revving up for the Fox

While the world might still be undecided on what exactly the fox says, thanks to Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis, millions more are at least pondering the question.

I first heard “The Fox” in late September, when an American friend posted it on my Facebook wall. The song was all the rage in the States, he said. How was it received in Norway? I was a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of it yet. I watched the techno song and dance routine. Then I watched it again. It was ridiculous and mesmerizing all at once.

By the end of the week, my other international friends in Norway were circulating the link widely, writing things like “hattee hattee hattee ho” on each other’s Facebook walls, self-congratulating on having chosen to study abroad in the country responsible for producing such a smash sensation. Before long, the song was everywhere: from softly hummed choruses to college campus fundraisers (one non-profit club offered to give you a small waffle and tell you ‘what the fox says’ for ever 25 kroners donated to their cause). When I visited the Norwegian Forestry Museum, our grizzled, animated tour guide broke into an impromptu “What Does the Moose Say?” riff, before teaching us how to make moose calls.

By early October, the viral video had received over 100 million hits on YouTube. The song currently sits in the number six spot on Billboard's Hot 100 list, right above Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. There are follow-up videos of “The Fox” synchronized with elaborate Halloween light displays.

So, what's the reception like in Norway? At this point in late October, I’ve found it to be nationally positive and uniting, without quite having worn out its welcome yet. Everyone knows it and receives it with laughs and good spirits. I'll be working with middle school students and one of them will start humming it absent-mindedly. Before long, all of us are singing it. The same thing happened at a preschool I visited, and though they didn't quite know the words, those three-year-olds could "ding-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding" with the best of them. Even the educators sang along.

It's pretty impressive that “The Fox” makes it onto the very limited repertoire of English songs that Norwegian pre-schoolers can sing. At least at the pre-school where I was volunteering, it was basically “The Fox” and “Happy Birthday.” Okay, okay, you’re saying, “The Fox” is not so much English as silly animal sounds, a glorified “Old MacDonald.” That doesn’t stop it from being a sort of cheery rallying cry, the kind of song where you can sing a line and count on people smiling in recognition.

I think there's a sense of pride mixed with bemusement that such a ridiculous song could be bringing fame to Norway. It's like, what's the latest to come from Norway? The Nobel Peace Prize announcement and "The Fox." Ylvis – brothers Bård and Vegard – are determined not to let people read too deeply into the song. In one interview with Spin Magazine, Bård said, “Even though people find it interesting, it’s still a stupid fox song.”

Still, the very fact that it is about a fox is all so Norwegian. The fox, or Rev in Norwegian, occupies a special place in national folk tales, often playing the role of clever trickster. In one story, Fox tricks Bear into sticking his tail into a hole in the ice for winter fishing (it’s a Norwegian story, after all). Bear’s tail freezes, and when Bear tries to stand up, the whole thing rips off – which is why bears have such short tails now. Another story involves Fox becoming a shepherd, at which point he proceeds to eat all the cows, sheep and goats. When the old woman goes out to check on her flocks, Fox sneaks inside the house and eats up all the cream. The woman finally just heaves the whole cream pot at Fox, and the last little drop splashes on his tail – which is why foxes have a splash of white on their tails. Maybe foxes are just inherently sneaky, because to some extent, this same portrayal has seeped into American lore—such as in the Roald Dahl story and film Fantastic Mr. Fox, or the song “The Fox went out on a Chilly Night.” Yet in our melting pot canon of American folklore, the fox competes with other clever figures: Anansi, and Br’er Rabbit, Coyote, etc. and thus is not quite as central a figure.

Today I was observing in a Norwegian second grade class for a day of outdoor learning. Before we headed to the forest, though, the entire school held a dress rehearsal for tomorrow’s musical performance for senior citizens. The first graders started it off, singing a jolly song about being in their first year at school, followed by the Norwegian ABC song. Then came the second graders, performing a more advanced techno-style ABC song (who even knew this existed?!). Finally, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders approached the stage. “They will be singing ‘The Fox,’” reported the emcee.

And so, for the first time, I got to hear “The Fox” performed with guitar accompaniment and tasteful swaying.

Later that day, I talked with the guitarist, Thomas, who also serves as the second grade teacher and the music director. I asked him how he had chosen to include “The Fox” in the line-up.

He stared at me as though the answer were obvious. “All the pupils love it,” he said, finally. Thomas told me that he started by teaching more traditional songs (i.e. ABC song and ABC upbeat-remix). He kept overhearing the students singing “The Fox,” so he decided to end with that song for a treat.

“Do you think the elderly guests will also know it?” I asked.

“If they don’t know it yet, they’re about to learn it!” he replied.

It’s quite possible that “The Fox” will start to drive people crazy, or perhaps it will just fade into mellow mediocrity. But you never know what sort of tricks Fox has up its sleeve. I think we are far from the last “pow pow pow pow powpapow.”