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Home: The Toast

Stromae- “Papaoutai”

De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig- De Formule

You ever hear a song and then apologize to other songs because sorry, you’re not this song, I won’t be listening to you ever again? That’s how I’ve felt about “Papaoutai” for the past few weeks. I’m far from the only one in these parts, it seems, as it’s number 2 on the Dutch charts and in the top 10 on both Belgian ones (like everything else in Belgium, there’s a separate chart for the Francophone Walloon population and the Dutch-speaking Flemish one), where it’s joined by its follow-up single, the Jacques-Brel-goes-electro ballad “Formidable.” It’s also number one in France, where it dethroned the continent-conquering “Wake Me Up!” by Avicii. That takes something special.

If you were in any part of Europe during 2010 or 2011, you probably heard multi-talented Belgian Stromae’s (real name Paul van Haver) last hit, “Alors on danse.” I heard it all the time, and I didn’t get here until September. If you weren’t in Europe you might have heard the Kanye West remix. The best way to follow up a song of that magnitude, it seems, is to just make a really good new song.

“Alors on danse” was more of a dance hit, with a refrain and beat built to spread across a Europe where French isn’t quite the dominant force it once was. “Papaoutai” is a much more substantial song, with as much focus on the growling emotionality and rolling piano of the verses. It highlights Stromae-as-vocalist, showcasing his abilities as a rapper and singer in addition to everything else. As a non-French-speaker I can only get the basics of what’s going on here – it’s about Stromae growing up without his father, who he only saw three times in his entire life – but it’s enough for me and all the non-Francophones here. (While a lot of Dutch people take French in school, English is really the preferred second language here.) It also ties him into the greater French music world – chanson, Afropop, French hip-hop, Daft Punk – elements of which all come out here.

He seems to be making a play for the Anglophone pop world as well, with the American iTunes version of the just-released “Racine Carrée” featuring a version of “Papaoutai” with Angel Haze. It’s pretty good, although they put her verse in instead of my favorite second verse of the original, so I’d advise you to listen to the original first.

Before “Papaoutai” I was almost as obsessed with “De Formule,” from Amsterdammers De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig (“The Youth of Nowadays,” essentially “Kids These Days”). Dutch doesn’t have the same elegant lyricism of French, with its flowing consonants and romantic connotations. Nor does it have the precise harshness of German that’s been so integral to industrial music in all its formations. Rather, Dutch has a certain casualness and even cuteness to it. Nearly everything gets a diminutive “-je” at the end, vowels are often slurred together, and everything is laced through with the distinctive Dutch “g,” a sound that gets dredged up from the back of the throat. These difficult-to-make sounds and a native population that speaks great English (and is happy to use it) means I’ve barely learned any Dutch in my time here, but I’ve spent probably more time than I should sending friends back home words or names I find delightful.

One of the great things about hip-hop is how well it works with every language. In Dutch, it often becomes playful (at least from what I hear of it at indie-rock shows and gay clubs), often deeply tied into electronic music and club sounds. While embracing dance music certainly isn’t limited to the Dutch rappers, particularly these days, what strikes me about the Dutch rap I hear is how integral the songs are to their corresponding dances, especially compared to what I used to hear back home. (Although it’s been three years now, maybe that’s all changed.) Dutch is a much more insular language than French, spoken by about 23 million in a small area, and doesn’t quite make the global connections that French does. While of course Dutch artists are influenced by the world at large, it’s what’s at home provides the base. And what’s at home is party music.

“De Formule,” though, is a much stranger electro hip-hop mix. It’s not quite the club banger that other groups have put out this summer, but it’s compelling. It’s got a great beat, for one, and I love how the little beeps grow more and more insistent until they become an alarm that overwhelms the whole thing. It’s an odd song that’s also a pop song, which is basically my favorite kind. And it makes Dutch sound fun, toying with the syllables, the –je’s and aa’s, the peculiar cadences. For all I don’t speak it much, it’s become a weirdly comforting language for me. I like hearing it when I get off a plane. It’s part of my life now.

The Vengaboys- Hot Hot Hot!

Armin van Buuren feat. Trevor Guthrie- This Is What It Feels Like

Did you know that the Vengaboys are Dutch? I’ve been told this more than once with pride, or at least less shame than I would have expected. The Netherlands a small country, so perhaps it makes sense that every internationally-known celebrity or pop group is prized there, especially since there just aren’t a lot of Dutch musicians known to non-Dutch.

Or maybe it’s because in their heyday, they had a lot more hits than I realized. One of my friends was mildly confused that the only Vengaboys song I knew was that one in the Six Flags ad, which I don’t think it’s that uncommon for Americans my age.

A while ago I was at an academic thing with a bunch of other Dutch Ph.D researchers about my age. Somehow we got onto the topic of music of the 90s, and it dawned on me that my memories of the period are completely different than theirs. They were aware of Nirvana, but they didn’t have quite the same response to say, Green Day or Sugar Ray (I know) that I did. And the bands they had liked – 2 Brothers on the Fourth Floor, 2 Unlimited, Take That – meant little to me. They were names that I’d either sort of heard or couldn’t place at all. I went to a 90’s Now! dance party at a large venue in town with one of my friends and it was a similar thing. A few songs I could place (everyone remembers the Spice Girls), but the bulk of the music was a mystery to me.

Now, though, dance music is everywhere. Everyone has EDM backing tracks, and you can’t move on the Internet for thinkpieces about how the US has embraced the dance scene, for real this time. Maybe it’s because the Internet makes it a lot easier for people to figure out what’s going on overseas. Instead of physically carrying a song, you can stream or download it (once you hear about it, which you can also do a lot faster than before).

Whatever the case, the Vengaboys are back to cash in on the new popularity of their sound. What’s remarkable is how totally lazy this song is. A few EDM flourishes, random Brazilian-ish elements (the Netherlands, like much of Europe, was hit hard by Ai eu se te pego and Balada, and bam. Vengaboys for 2013.

When I do try to think of Dutch musicians non-Dutch people might know, I’m stuck until I remember that a lot of the big-name DJs of the world, the ones riding this EDM thing for all the $20 million Las Vegas bookings they can, are Dutch. Armin here is one of those big-name DJs, big enough that even I’d heard of him before moving, and this is his song to try and get those pop-EDM dollars. I hear it a lot here.

The striking thing is really the all-American homoeroticism of the video, which weirdly reminds me of how many Dutch people I know who want to drive across America. They love the idea of the endless space, of the open road. To drive across the entire Netherlands, from Maastricht in the south to Groningen in the north, would take about four hours. There’s no way you could drive for hours and not see anything but a lonely gas station or truck stop. I never realized how big the US was until I left it. 

Klangkarussel – Sonnentanz

Bakermat- Vandaag

I keep reading things about how Americans are into dance music on a country-wide level now, but I’d be surprised if I saw stuff like this charting. Here, though, there’s always going to be a song or few that sounds like this in the summer. Something kind of mellow, sort of house, probably with a video featuring young people hanging out in the sun or whatever, minimal or no vocals. It’s part of the mainstream. “Vandaag” is above “Blurred Lines” on the charts over here.

“Sonnentanz” is Austrian originally, but came out here just about in time for Queen’s Day, the national holiday celebrating wearing orange, drinking, and the royal family. It’s a fine excuse to party in the sometimes-cooperating spring weather, with all the cities and neighborhoods in the cities putting on stages with music and beer and all the blindingly orange accessories that you could want. It’s nuts and a total delight. My friends, of course, think it’s kind of boring after living here their whole lives, but I still love it. Maybe the novelty of walking around the city holding a glass of beer is still on.

This year it was a particularly big one, as it marked the transition from Queen Beatrix to her son Willem-Alexander. Beatrix stepped down, as her mother and grandmother had done before her, and now there’s a king. King Willem-Alexander was inaugurated on April 30, which had been Queen’s Day for a while – it was the birthday of Beatrix’s mother Juliana, and as Beatrix’s birthday was in January, she kept it there. Next year it’ll be King’s Day and on April 27.

The inauguration featured a boat ride down the Ij in Amsterdam in one of those tourist boats with a celebration of Dutch culture. This meant, among other things, Olympic speed-skaters pretending to skate on a barge and a command performance by Armin van Buuren. It was kind of great.

It was also interesting to see how the Dutch I know react to this display of the monarchy, and how much the presentation of the monarchy tied itself into a celebration of “Dutchness.” One of my colleagues is a strict republican (in the anti-monarchy sense of the term), while another has fond memories of watching royal visits every year with her family. The royals provide a sort of background presence. Many institutions are the “Royal” whatever; the family members make news on occasion, and the orange clothing that so marks the Dutch comes from their house name. I think they’re generally liked, but the idea of the monarchy so rarely is part of my life that I have no idea. But the imagery is clear: the royal family are Dutch people. They have several blond children, they like speed-skating and trance and musical theater.

“Vandaag” emerged later and is very popular as I write, the product of a 21-year-old psychology student here in Utrecht. He has now officially released three songs. It’s strange to me to think that someone can become so successful that quickly, that somehow you can just release a house music single and then you’ve got the number-3 song in the country. I found a photo of him from an interview, assumedly from where he lives, and it’s a messy student room, of the kind I’ve seen so much before. There’s an IKEA shelf and one of those disembodied sinks in it. His rise has been so sudden that he’s still living there, possibly trying to juggle gigs in Ibiza with the start of the new school year.

In a small country, these are things that can happen. He looks like nearly every other university student. I may have walked past him dozens of times.

The song itself is built around a sample of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, threaded through with a sax solo. It features just a bit of the speech, enough to both establish what it is and also to decontextualize it. It’s uplifting to hear and also kind of nothing, another nice sound in the rest of them. It’s hard to know what exactly the kid making the track intended by using the clip. “Vandaag” means “today.”

Serebro – “Mi Mi Mi”

I first became aware of Serebro when they were the Russian entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, way back in 2007, where they came in third with Song #1. At the time, I liked them because they seemed like sex robots who had somehow written and performed a song. Everything supported this theory, from the song’s generic title, to the awkward-but-blatant innuendo of the lyrics, to the fact that the band name reminded me of the mutant locator in X-Men.

Six years later, and Serebro have a song in the Dutch Top 40 (currently number eight), and it’s fascinating because it sounds like sex robots who have somehow written and performed a song. There’s nothing subtle or demure about Serebro. It’s post-feminism in a pop song, all about how great and hot and fun the girls in Serebro are, and how happy they are with being so, but it’s not directed to anyone in particular. The robot-ness comes out in the sheer awkwardness of the lyrics – “I am so cool with my awesome big tits on the ground” and “call me dandy candy cause I’m high,” which read like a computer program took some “sexy” words and put them together randomly. Maybe it’s less strange in Russian.

The only other country this song has charted in is Italy, but it’s holding strong in the Dutch Top 10. I’ve also seen it advertised as part of a “Dance Hits” compilation advertised prominently during the “Movies voor Mannen” films on commercial broadcast television that I regularly watch because they keep showing Jean-Claude van Damme. Why here? Maybe because it’s a good dance-pop song, with a catchy chorus that’s easy to sing along to. Or maybe it’s because of its ridiculousness. I’ve been minorly obsessed with Dutch feestmuziek in my time here, which is some of the most ridiculous pop I’ve ever heard and am likely to ever hear.

No one I know admits to liking it, but you’ll hear it coming out of boats in Amsterdam during Queen’s Day, or late night at student bars, and most especially at Carnaval in the south. It’s music made especially for drinking beer, with big choruses that you’ll want to sing and remember how to when you’ve had several. Stuff like this or this or this.

If Dutch hip-hop is limited to the Dutch audience, this is even more so, even more provincial and inward-looking, written without even the consideration of a non-Dutch audience. It is the least universally cool, and, at least in the music videos, sort of proud of that – all the videos seem to feature a large group of average-looking people in the neighborhood pub, waving beers around and having a good time. Who cares if the Amsterdam hipsters think it’s terrible?

“Mi Mi Mi” strikes me as a slightly updated version of that style. The nightclub version, instead of the neighborhood pub. They’re younger and prettier, but no less ridiculous. And if anyone can appreciate that, I suppose it’s the Dutch

Abby Waysdorf is an American Ph.D researcher in the Netherlands. Follow her on Twitter to learn more about Deadly Women and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar the cat.

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