Why “The Fox” Is One of the Best Songs of the Year (No, Really)

The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?) [single]
WM Norway

Here’s a fun fact: I listed “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Ylvis on my Top 10 Singles list for the year. Some of the staff were confused/bemused/potentially angry at that inclusion, perhaps aghast at the inaccuracies that the song has brought forth, notably that foxes, in fact, do not make such sounds, much less marry them to catchy dance beats. There’s no mistake that this is a novelty song of the highest order, but in the realm of parodic songwriting, does Ylvis’ track line up closer to “Disco Duck” or “Dick in a Box”? What legacy, if any, will it have? And, most importantly, why the hell did I put it on my Top 10 list for the year?

Here’s the thing about Ylvis’ wacky song: unlike a great majority of the Lonely Island’s new material this year or even the numerous YouTube parodies that emerged following each new Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga event, Ylvis’ song was actually, legitimately funny. I cannot stress the utter comic brilliance over a line as simple as “fish go blub”, as the guys have stumbled upon a formula that has worked so many times before: they take a very silly premise and ride it as far as they possibly can. They touch many dance-pop tropes along the way, from the glottal-shock phrasing “ho-o-o-o-o-rse” to the falsetto-heavy final minute, it sounds like everything else on the radio, but stands out because it’s so intensely hyper-aware of its own surroundings.

In short, this song is like many of the Lonely Island’s greatest moments: it’s a concept that’s so stupid it’s smart. Andy Samberg has said in interviews that he feels that the way to get a comedy song to go “viral” is just to have it be funny: not forced funny like a great majority of The Wack Album was, but legitimately, profoundly absurd. “Weird Al” Yankovic has made a living providing those slight twists on genres, songs, and styles to make them effective, which is why he’s had a career that’s spanned multiple decades. Ylvis isn’t the Norwegian duo’s first stab at subverting modern song structure, but it is by far their most successful attempt.

In fact, a quick journey through the talk show hosts’ back catalog reveals a great wealth of comic wonders: glorious mockeries of all things dubstep (“Someone Like You“), sweet loverman R&B (“The Cabin“), and perhaps their second finest piece of comic songwriting, the power ballad lambast “Stonehenge“. Their videos are all very well-produced, although the visual elements never override the songs: these tracks were meant to be enjoyed even without a YouTube link, and the fact that they work on their own is a testament to their own abilities.

Back in 2003, rapper and poet Mike Ladd released Beauty Party by his mainstream hip-hop parody group the Majesticons, having already released a backpack rap-mocking collection by the Majesticons’ nemesis, the Infesticons, in 2000. Beauty Party was a mainstream rap parody where Ladd and his army of indie producers and lyrical heavyweights (El-P, Vast Aire, etc.) did the mainstream hip-hop thing so well that the album actually failed as a parody because it actually sounded like a pretty good mainstream rap album, and people who didn’t know the creators’ intent would actually buy it and enjoy it without any notion that the album was designed as a mockery.

So many people, upon hearing “The Fox” for the first time, didn’t realize that the song was intended to be funny. It’s alarming to see how many people took it at face value, thinking this was the next big dumb pop song that will.i.am no doubt had a hand in writing. Yet the song worked because it was actually funny, reveled in its own absurdity, and, amazingly, actually held up to replays, even if just as a floor-filler. It was a parody so good it was shopped to radio and the duo wound up scoring a legitimate Top 10 hit.

It takes a lot of wit and talent to bamboozle mainstream pop radio with a song so gloriously dumb. Yet Ylvis reveled in their stupidity, and then showed courage when they sang it live (legit) on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The song made its way onto my playlist and I’m happy to have it there. The fact that this simple novelty turn swarmed pop culture with such sudden force is what made it land on my End of the Year Top 10. There were songs that were more emotional, but few that bent the very fabric of pop culture in such a memorable, ridiculous way.