THE SONG begins in typical power-ballad fashion, with plaintive piano chords and rumbling strings. Soon, though, the lyrics go awry. The lead singer reflects on his good fortune—a successful career on television, a passionate marriage, a “thousand-dollar haircut”—but laments that he is tormented day and night by a single question. Such soft-rock numbers usually dwell on a former lover or missed opportunity; what preoccupies this man is a prehistoric monument in south-west England. “What’s the deal with Stonehenge?” he cries, his white shirt billowing in the wind. Is it “a giant granite birthday cake, or a prison far too easy to escape”?
There are few more enjoyable ways to while away an evening in lockdown than discovering the work of Ylvis, a Norwegian comedy duo. Made up of brothers Vegard and Bard Ylvisaker, the band produces delightfully absurd pastiches of various kinds of music. Many of the songs were written in English for their variety TV show, “Tonight With Ylvis”, and are best consumed on YouTube with the zany accompanying videos. This is music designed to be appreciated at home, where the lyrics can be easily digested and the videos paused or repeated when laughter ensues.
Much of Ylvis’s comic appeal lies in the way they treat everyday, even banal, themes with deadpan gravity. They wrote a song about animal noises, asking “What does the fox say?” and parodying European electronic pop, because they “wanted to make a very good production about something very stupid,” Vegard explains. It is an irresistible earworm, topping the charts in Norway and reaching number six on the Billboard chart in America. The video has been watched nearly 1bn times online.
“Jan Egeland”, a rock track with thundering electric guitars and falsetto vocals, pays tribute to a Norwegian diplomat involved in the Oslo accords. The country-inflected “Massachusetts” is a tongue-in-cheek ode to America’s 15th-most-populous state (it angered some Bay Staters by suggesting that they were homophobic). “Russian Government Process”, in the style of a traditional folk song, pokes fun at that country’s opaque bureaucracy—as the music increases in tempo, the list of instructions becomes harder to understand.
Bard says the pair have “an appetite for all sorts of genres”. They have also written lampoons of sultry R’n’B (“The Cabin”), misogynistic hip-hop (“Work It”) and dubstep (“Someone Like Me”). Besides their sheer range, what sets Ylvis apart from other comedy groups is the catchiness of the melodies and the brothers’ versatile and prodigious talents. You will try—and fail—to hit their high notes in the shower. In these dull, repetitive days, their work is a heartening reminder that even anodyne things can be a source of inspiration. ■
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “Played for laughs”