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.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Why it feels like Easter time

Two quick Easterly follow-ups to the thought a few days ago on April Fools' Day as a holiday in celebration of the vernal equinox (i.e. spring).

  • The vernal equinox, I've since learned, can be considered either the 'first day of spring' or the 'middle of spring' for the northern hemisphere depending on your perspective (ground temperature change versus scientific equinox of when sunlight is at a precise midpoint on the earth's surface, respectively).
  • It's Easter! Why is it "Easter"? Easter is a critically important religious holiday for Christian faiths. So why not call it Resurrection Day (a few do), or the Festival of the Ascendance, or Jesus April Fools Day? According to the Oxford English Dictionary's "Etymologically, 'Easter' is derived from Old English. Germanic in origin, it is related to the German Ostern and the English east. [Bede] describes the word as being derived from Eastre, the name of a goddess associated with spring." So, at least in name if not spirit, Easter has strong ties to the season of spring.

Ok, one more:
  • Easter Bunnies and Easter eggs came into the picture about a millennium and a half after the holiday got its roots, around the 1600's in medieval Germany (the Holy Roman Empire). Originally, the German tradition of bringing eggs was not linked to Easter, nor were the eggs edible. America especially liked the tradition and adopted it from German immigrants (similar to the idea of Kris Kringle) and in the modern era the Easter bunny and colorful eggs are the ubiquitous symbols of a secularized Easter. This linking of imagery was not threatening to the Christian churches because bunnies and eggs are ancient symbols of fertility. From Wikipedia: "Eggs, like rabbits and hares, are fertility symbols of extreme antiquity. Since birds lay eggs and rabbits and hares give birth to large litters in the early spring, these became symbols of the rising fertility of the earth at the Vernal Equinox."
I'll close with an intriguingly opposed perspective (so to speak) from an Australian social researcher, Hugh Mackay, on Easter:
"A strangely reflective, even melancholy day. Is that because, unlike our cousins in the northern hemisphere, Easter is not associated with the energy and vitality of spring but with the more subdued spirit of autumn?" - Hugh Mackay

Thursday, April 1, 2010

All Fools Today

Jester Mask
Did you know that Americans originally created the Joker for playing cards in the 1800's as the highest card for the game of Euchre? Juke, but no joke.

It's April 1st, and that means you've been made a fool. Not by me of course; the tidbit above is not prevarication despite your uncertainty. Nevertheless, you are being foolish. You look foolish right now and I can't even see you! You act downright medieval you're such a fool!

(Please excuse the jester.)

The exact founding of this "All Fools Day" on the first of April isn't known, though it is known that the practice has a history going back hundreds of years with about as many theories as to its origin. Owing to its long history (and reasons I'll detail), April Fools' Day is very popular in Westernized countries around the world. Interestingly, in the traditional culture of some countries such as the UK, Australia, and South Africa, you're only supposed to 'fool' before noon. If you prank someone after noon you're considered an April Fool.

April Fools' Day thrives because we're particularly ready for a goofy time of year, so to speak. With a physiological basis in enjoying the anticipation of unexpected thrill (à la dopamine), a mood of lighthearted puckishness meshes well with the time of year; moving from cold Winter indoors to the onset of sunny Spring outdoors. The months following the winter holidays are perceived as particularly dreary, so by the time April arrives people are anxious to celebrate the seasonal change. Thinking sociologically, it's how societies celebrate the vernal equinox on a day that is easier to remember.

Even though the jocundity we experience personally on this day isn't always memorable, we are always eager to hear about clever pranks. Lists of both the well-known and best recent April Fools circulate widely every year as testament to this desire, and you'll probably read at least one by the end of the day. Each communicative medium has its own class of hoaxes, from print to radio to TV. And now of course there's the Internet, the most likely source of your prank news in the modern era.

The desire and expectation of deception is problematic, however. That's probably why we do this hoax holiday only once a year. Important factual news announced on April 1st is automatically doubted by the public, wary of being fools caught unawares. We keep ourselves at a distance lest we fall into some emotional trap and look silly (even as we quietly desire the silliness). Distancing is normal behavior we employ all the time, but it's especially pronounced when you're keeping yourself constantly alert to trickery. Problems occur when this heightened skepticism affects our perception of serious stories we would otherwise give their accordingly serious consideration. We restrict receptiveness and compliance, which can incapacitate systems that rely on precise communication or timely cooperation.

Illustrating the effects of this profound shift in our approach to news on April Fools' Day, one need only look back at the stories that emerged after the last time this happened. On April 1st 2009, a school was almost burned to the ground in the town of Albertslund, Denmark because the fire department refused to believe that the news was true the first two times that people called to report the fire. Naturally the firemen, being normally helpful people, rushed to extinguish the flames after repeated communication attempts forced them to realize their mistake, and the school was fortunately not a total loss. Nonetheless, the anecdote is indicative that losing response time in a time-critical situation can have catastrophic consequences.

Terrorizing your lighthearted day of puckishness a little more personally, one can easily imagine that the psychological caution we employ on April Fools' Day acts as convenient cover for malicious pranksters. In another story from last year, on and around April 1st 2009 there was a great deal of American mainstream media attention concerning about a rapidly spreading computer worm (often cited as a variant of Conficker). Without knowing enough to assess the immediate danger of the virus, news outlets warned the public at the speed of panic, as news is wont to do.

Unlike the Danish school fire, the danger of the worm was relatively minimal, especially in contrast to the slew of new viruses unleashed on the web everyday. Yet still alike the Danish incident, the ambiguity of the purported threat still led to overreaction. In the case of the fire department it was inattentiveness; in the case of the news outlets it was over-attentiveness, drowning out other more relevant news. Either extreme leads to neglect.

Now that you know you're playing the fool whether you like it or not, bear in mind the distinction between rational response and irrational response as you take in the day's news this year. After all, it's April 1st and everyone's a bit foolish. So keep your jokes... practical.

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