Nevermind Brookers, Here's 'Dragostea din Tei'
In the world of weird cultural appropriation that is the Web, nothing can compare to the strange tale of a Moldavian pop song called "Dragostea din Tei." It began in 2003 as a catchy disco tune by boy band The O-Zone, who sing in Romanian and look like a queer version of Duran Duran (or perhaps a queerer version). Their video started circulating on the Web a couple years ago, and is full of silly shots where the band dances on an airplane, its members hugging each other and randomly morphing into cartoon characters.
The infectious song became a hit in Europe and immediately inspired several parody/homage fan videos online. One, by a Finnish artist, depicted an androgynous anime character dancing to the tune -- so many people accessed her little movie that no server would host it (today you can see it here). Soon a Japanese cartoon version appeared. In it, two cats dance while subtitles supply words in Japanese that sound like the Romanian lyrics, thus producing a running commentary of Japanese nonsense.
The obvious and exuberant queerness of the video inspired other parodies, including one where three Polish guys dance around with giant dildos and another that aired on Spanish television with the lyrics changed to include the phrase "marica tu," which means "you're queer."
Earlier this year, a group of students at University of British Columbia gave the Web possibly the last (or at least the best) word in gay appropriations of the video. Four nubile Canadian men jump around, take off their shirts, chase airplanes, and frolic by the seashore while mouthing the lyrics to "Dragostea din Tei." Although this elaborate creation was linked from Collegehumor.com, it's hard to see the parody in it -- it's a straight homage to the goofy Moravian original.
While these queer appropriations (or approbations) warmed up the Net, a very different group also played telephone with "Dragostea din Tei," creating parodies of parodies inspired by a 19-year-old American kid named Gary Brolsma. Bolsma had recorded himself lip syncing, making faces, and chair-dancing to the song with a Web cam and posted it on his website. Within days, copies of the video had made it all over the 'net, inspiring people to recreate Brolsma's hand-waving and nutty facial expressions in their own videos. Over many iterations, this meme was dubbed the "Numa Numa Dance," in reference to the chorus of "Dragostea din Tei," which goes "numa numa iei, numa numa iei." Although Brolsma was embarrassed by the phenomenon and stopped talking to the press about it, his happy, geeky imitators posted Numa Numa Dances from all over the world -- including Thailand, Hong Kong, the UK, and of course Canada. My favorite was made by a couple of kids in the U.S. studying for a Calculus exam, who dance around to the song and wave print-outs of formulas and binary numbers in front of the screen.
Even the U.S. Navy got in on the action with a video that sort of straddles the line between being gay and being dorky.
Despite its global popularity, few in the media paid any attention to this queer geek meme until a straight, white girl named Brookers appropriated it on video-sharing site YouTube.com. Her version, called "Crazed Numa Fan," shows her doing the exact same thing you see in every other Numa Numa Dance flick: she waves her arms and makes faces in front of her bedroom webcam. But her video, which is no more or less creatively cute than the hundreds of others out there, was downloaded 1.5 million times. And a couple weeks ago, it earned the skinny blonde 20-year-old a development deal with former MTV star Carson Daly's production company.
I know, I know. Predictable as hell, right?
But while Brookers' fame will flare out, the Numa Numa Dance will continue on its merry digital way. When I watch all those happy imitators bouncing to "Dragostea Din Tei" on their webcams I feel viscerally the utopian promise of global pop culture. I'm nodding along to a joyful tune in a language I rarely hear, and it's been mashed-up, appropriated and reappropriated, our pleasure in it shared and reshared until it feels like everybody everywhere is doing the Numa Numa Dance along with me.