From Numa Numa to Chandra Brambra

When Europop Goes Ultra-Kitsch

By John Strausbaugh

Before the Internet age, it was hard for Americans to appreciate how supremely kitschy Europop could be. Mostly we just saw the glossy surface, like ABBA. Web phenomena like Gary Brolsma's "Numa Numa" video began to open windows to what was for most of us an unexplored landscape of endearingly inept yet invasively catchy weirdness, a kitsch beyond kitsch -- ultra-kitsch.

The Numa Numa song, "Dragostea din tei," was by the Romanian boy band O-Zone. Their video is a this-is-how-we-throw-down-in-the-Balkans no-budget marvel. That prop plane, those glasses, the He-Man cartoons -- it just breaks your heart.

A friend who grew up in Sweden showed me this wonderfully sad clip of the late Finnish dance instructor Åke Blomqvist offering instructions on how to dazzle at the disco in the late 70s. Those flares, that duck walk, the cheerless determination to boogie against all odds. This must be how they kept kicking Soviet butt.   

The song they're sort of dancing to was a big hit in Europe that never got here -- "Moskau"  by German ABBA imitators Dschinghis Khan. The group was put together by a couple of German producers to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1979. There's a lot that's endearing about their hopelessly maladroit video -- the Mr. Clean, the hausfrau, the sissy Cossack, the girl with the gap in her teeth and the cocaine eyes. And the costumes. And more clunky dance steps.

They didn't win, but "Moskau" went on to be a big hit in Europe, with an underground cult following in the Soviet Union (where it was frowned on by officials), and an English version that went to the top of the pops in Australia. The group dined out on it and a couple of other tracks -- like the eponymous "Dschinghis Khan," which is basically "Moskau" with different lyrics -- for years. As recently as this 2010 clip the survivors and some younger ringers were still lip-synching "Moskau" more than three decades later. Meanwhile the 1979 video has had more than six million hits on Youtube.

Kitsch doesn't get more ultra than in this 2001 video by Russian pop star Vitas. The song, "The 7th Element," is likeable, catchy Europop. Pretty much everything about the video, though, is just plain weird -- but in a mesmerizing way that begs multiple viewings. Evidently Vitas was exploring his inner Ziggy Stardust/Klaus Nomi at this point. The spaceman he's portraying is supposed to be some kind of amphibian, which explains the bizarre little flappy-wrist two-step. He has come to Earth to bring us a galactic message of peace, expressed in the space-talk nonsense refrain, "Chandra Brambra Chandra Brambra Bedrun." His rap at the end is space talk too, is it not? That he's an alien might also explain the unsettling, chillingly phony smile he turns on and off like a flashlight.

Vitas allegedly possessed an incredible five-octave singing range, supposedly demonstrated in another of his hits, "Opera No. 2." It's more catchy pop, but since he's always lip-synching in his videos -- and wearing scarves that hide his Adam's apple -- who knows how authentic those high notes are. Vitas has toured the US, still has a large Russian-language following, and is huge in China. Over the years he has filled out a bit and left the spacesuits behind; he looks more like Wayne Newton than David Bowie now.

Plenty of pop music kitsch is made elsewhere. Bollywood developed its own visual lexicon of ultra-ultra long ago. So have J-pop and K-pop, although they're both precision-tooled with a high-gloss sheen -- intentional, calculated kitsch, an entirely different and entirely less interesting phenomenon, like Gaga's early outfits. Maybe Europop's sub-ABBA kitsch has such a uniquely doofy and innocent charm because it's not trying to be bad or weird, it just is.

Published December 31st, 2015

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.