Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Needs Less Cowbell (Trololo Explained)

In early March I thought about Eduard Khil and his new claim to fame as the Trololo Man thanks to viral internet sharing of his 1976 vocalization performance. The song, "I Am So Glad To, Finally, Be Returning Home", was originally composed with lyrics, but composer Arkadiy Ostrovskiy and Eduard Khil together decided before showtime to strip the song of its content and replace the lyrics with vocalization singing, substituting vowel sounds for the words and resulting in the video you see today.



So what happened to cause Arky and Edik to scrap the lyrics before showtime? Russian news org Life News asked Eduard:
"Originally, we had lyrics written for this song but they were poor. I mean, they were good, but we couldn't publish them at that time. They contained words like these: "I'm riding my stallion on a prairie, so-and-so mustang, and my beloved Mary is thousand miles away knitting a stocking for me". Of course, we failed to publish it at that time, and we, Arkady Ostrovsky and I, decided to make it a vocalisation. But the essence remained in the title. The song is very naughty – it has no lyrics, so we had to make up something for people would listen to it, and so this was an interesting arrangement." - Eduard Khil 14.3.2010

Soviet Coat of Arms
The Trololo video was filmed in 1976, a time when Russian media was widely and routinely censored by the controlling USSR regime. Though Eastern bloc censorship in the 60's and 70's had declined comparatively after the Khrushchev Thaw marking the end of Stalin's oppressive rule during the first half of the 20th century, the communist-state controlled media still felt strong pressure to reinforce a Socialist Realism narrative and repress contrary narratives in the shadow of the lingering Cold War.

Arkady and Eduard were no strangers to the arts in this environment. They knew that lyrics about a cowboy and his pioneer wife evoking vivid landscapes of the American West would immediately raise a red flag (sans hammer & sickle) for the television broadcaster. Knowing that censorship officials would almost certainly reject the song with seemingly pro-Western lyrics, the change-up to vocalization was the only viable option. A meme was born that day, but it would be decades before anyone knew it.

In the 1980's, about a decade after filming (and about two decades before the internet would remind the world of the video's existence by dubbing it with the onomatopoetic sobriquet "trololo"), Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, began implementing his policies of Perestroika and Glasnost. Glasnost, a policy of "maximal publicity, openness, and transparency in government", brought with it freedom of information and new cultural freedoms for citizens of the Soviet states. This time of sweeping change under Gorbachev's leadership eventually led to the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of modern Russia and the independent nations out of the former bloc states of eastern Europe.

A Soviet stamp propagandizing Perestroika and Glasnost

So time passes and along comes the Интернет, where some nostalgic chap casually drops the clip onto YouTube under its original Russian title, "Я очень рад, ведь я, наконец, возвращаюсь домой". It sits for a little while as an esoteric example of bygone Russian entertainment, until earlier this year. In February and March 2010, the video shot upwards in popularity when it was 'discovered' for its quirkiness and re-purposed as a 'bait-and-switch' comedic device (see Rickroll). Hundreds of spoofs soon spawned around the original video, and with the help of large audience propagators (e.g. The Colbert Report) the trololo internet meme was well on its way. The original clip on YouTube alone has quintupled to five million views since last month.

Eduard Khil welcomed the sudden flood of attention after apparently first learning about the phenomenon from his 13 year old grandson, who purportedly came home from school one day whistling the tune and had to explain to his grandfather why this old song was popular now because of the Internet (it's a series of YouTubes*).

Partly due to the rush of Russian media attention, Eduard began making a handful of public appearances in mid-March, just weeks into the meme's upswing. In a broad response to the often-asked question of lyrics, Eduard published a video address in which he suggests that his fans collaborate to write new lyrics for the song. His earnest proposition is testament to our global society's relatively modern freedom to create and share with impunity. No governing body can truly censor media that they can't predict or intercept. Cultural memes like trololo are exemplary of the explosions of creativity that happen when it is both easy to create and easy to share.

So... be creative and prolific! Don't forget how much power the Internet as a communicative medium grants you; even if there exist those who would censor you, you need not alter the fruits of your labor to fit another's narrative.
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