You’ve heard it. Maybe you were clubbing and the DJ abruptly segued from Rihanna to a jaunty, accordion-laced, country-pop tune and all the Latins in the house rushed the floor, singing along and performing a dance that looks like a cross between the Macarena and the Pelvic Thrust. Maybe you were flipping channels and stopped long enough on Sky to watch clips of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo or AC Milan’s Robinho celebrating a goal with the same silly dance while delirious fans chanted along.
Or maybe, like me, you are hooked on Brazilian pop culture, in which case you don’t need this crash course for gringos on the Michel Teló, “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego” (“Oh, If I Catch You”) fever that is sweeping the globe.
Michel Teló - “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego”
It is the 2011-12 version of the inescapable global pop hit, along the lines of “Macarena”, “Who Let the Dogs Out?”, and “Llorando Se Fue”. Like those tunes, it is the perfectly-whipped light froth that floats atop a darker brew steaming somewhere deeper in the cup. Like those, it has gone through multiple versions on its way to the saturation point—it has been a chart-topper in Brazil for over a year, is currently number one all across Europe, and is already pervasive in Latino USA, where Michel Teló’s version vies with Pitbull’s remix for preeminence. I’m thinking a Rascal Flatts version cannot be far behind, the kind of turn known in Brazil as pulando o tubarão.
But before the shark is once and for all jumped, you may be wondering what is going on. Michel Teló is a cute country boy from Brazil who first found national fame in Grupo Tradição, a band that plays sertaneja music, blending central Brazil’s traditional rural styles with Nashville production methods and pedal-steel guitars. U.S. Brazilophiles tend to know samba, bossa nova, maybe funk carioca, but since the early 1990s sertaneja has been the best-selling genre in the country, an emergence that echoes Brazil’s rising agribusiness power and also reflects a longing for a safe and romantic countryside counterposed to the nation’s tumultuous cities. Sertaneja pop has reliably produced national superstars for two decades and Teló ditched Grupo Tradição for a solo career aspiring to that kind of success.
But “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego” is not a typical sertaneja song. Composer Sharon Acioly is from Porto Seguro, a beach tourist mecca in the state of Bahia, known for its Afro-Brazilian music, including axé, a blend of samba and reggae best known in the glam-pop expressions of Ivete Sangalo. Porto Seguro’s beachside nightclubs have long featured line-dancing led by an onstage “animator”, and it was in that role that Acioly developed the riff and refrain “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego”. When the crowd chanted along, mimicking Acioly’s gestures—fanning herself as if overwhelmed by the allure of a passing hottie—she knew it could be a hit. Acioly’s own version did not catch fire, but producer Antonio Dyggs remodeled it as a xote, an accordion-driven rhythm popular in Brazil’s rural northeast. Xote is a direct descendant of schottische, a ragtime-era rhythm that filtered throughout the Afro-Atlantic basin, but it has never gone out of style in Brazil, and is a basic component of forró, the accordion genre that still dominates the northeastern interior.
Within a few months of Dygg’s xotification, several forró bands were playing “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego”. Teló heard the tune in that guise, recognized it as a potential career-maker, and came up with his own version. He changed the lyrics slightly, eliminating any reference to forró, and transferred a horn riff to accordion, emphasizing country sweetness over coastal spice. But he maintained the harmony, the melody, and the rhythm—a xote that still bears traces of the reggae influence of the Porto Seguro scene.
Teló also made slight variations in the accompanying dance, but maintained the grab-and-thrust movements that offset his innocuous appearance and remind us of what this tune is all about. The dance is also what gives the whole phenomenon the occasional cringe-inducing resonance of the truly inescapable mega-hit. When Cristiano Ronaldo is doing it after another staggering blast from midfield into the upper-left corner, it is merely obnoxious. By the time your Uncle Ernie is doing it at the next family party, it will be just a little horrifying.
Cristiano Ronaldo dancing to “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego”
“Ai, Se Eu Te Pego” has the perfect simplicity of a hit whose time has come. Four chords in an endless loop, a simple riff, one verse and one chorus of four lines each, expressing nothing more complex than the straightforward urgency of sexual attraction. This makes it easy to deride, and it comes as no surprise that Brazilian artists who value subtlety have heaped scorn upon it. But just as “Macarena” could not have existed without the deep background of centuries of flamenco guitarists weaving spells for swirling dancers, or “Who Let the Dogs Out?” without centuries of Afro-Caribbean drummers bending English refrains Yoruba rhythms, “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego” could not exist without the long history of both extemporaneous couplets sung over looping rhythmic patterns and Ibero-American cowboy laments. They come to us here in their simplest disguise, which is what gives this the force of novelty.
This is the Brazilian cultural industry at its most potent: its pop wizards have several decades of practice in capturing a hint of the deepest flavors in Brazilian music and swirling them in the cauldron of sweet confection, emerging with pop that still has some connection to roots.
It helps that Teló is telegenic, but within Brazil, it helps even more that he is country. Over the past twenty years Brazil’s middle class has grown from a small sliver of the population to a substantial base. That growth stems from booming agribusiness—frozen chicken, concentrated orange-juice, sugar cane refined into ethanol. Is it an accident that Teló’s value-added country-pop bears such striking similarities to these market-ready commodities?
The new middle-class not only depends on agribusiness, it is based in the countryside. Twenty-five years ago, the rural interior of Teló’s home-state of Paraná was about as culturally compelling as southern Indiana, and the countryside of Mato Grosso, where his career eventually took off, was an impoverished backland known primarily for intractable malaria. Today, you can walk into a café in Medianeira, Paraná or Conquista d’Oeste, Mato Grosso and expect global niceties like wi-fi, espresso, and drizzled vinaigrette. But the sound system will mostly be playing sertaneja-pop, because this class emergence is defined by staking a claim to belonging, rather than imitating outsiders, whether from Los Angeles or Rio de Janeiro. “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego” was tailor-made for this audience and its taste for uncomplicated pleasures that subordinate coastal influence to the comforting taste of home.
The global spread of “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego,” meanwhile, reflects the current enthusiasm for all things Brazilian, from Neymar (bicycle kicks) to Embraer (regional jets). This is why Brazil was awarded both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro: the green-and-yellow sells well these days. “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego” does not have enough staying power to take us all the way through the World Cup, but you can bet it will generate a new legion of Brazilophiles and spawn a new burst of accordion pop between now and then. Michel Teló has one-hit wonder written all over him, but what a hit. C’mon. “Nossa, nossa, assim você me mata.” “Goodness, gracious, looking that way you kill me.” You know you love it.