Did Massachusetts Miss the Point While Watching Ylvis’s ‘Massachusetts’?

International readers tell us we didn't understand the Norwegian band's critique.

Most of us locals greeted the new Ylvis song “Massachusetts” with confusion. Certainly my first reaction to the follow-up from the Norwegian brothers behind this year’s surprise hit “What Does the Fox Say” involved head-scratching and mild suspicion. Are they mocking us? Are they calling us gay? Are they just making jokes that are funny because they don’t make sense?

Whatever concerns I had, they were outweighed by the scathing review in Thursday’s Boston Globe from music critic James Reed:

The whole song is completely tone-deaf, random enough that it doesn’t register with people from here or, for that matter, who live elsewhere. It has the feel of outsiders trying to make a statement about a place they’ve never visited.

Reed calls the homoerotic references “borderline homophobic.” He adds, “It’s been fun to watch fervent criticism of the song spread over Facebook and Twitter, especially among locals.”

But it isn’t just Reed who’s been watching Americans write off the video. The two Norwegian comedians are hugely successful back home with their TV shows and videos similar in tone to “The Fox” and “Massachusetts.” Over the past couple days, I’ve heard from several Ylvis defenders, mostly Scandinavians who found me via Google. They were confused—if not hostile—toward the negative reaction.

“It strikes me that our cultural background may cause us to see things very, very differently, regardless of educational level or social awareness,” wrote one of my more polite email correspondents.

“The more interesting story is on the profound ethnocentrism of Americans who assume everything on YouTube is for them … Americans NEVER CONSIDER that there might be another context or culture worth knowing about,” wrote one of the more irate. (America apparently doesn’t hold a monopoly on stereotyping.)

From these conversations and from having spent more time watching a slim selection of Ylvis’s older material (which has millions of views on YouTube even if it never made it to Gawker and Reddit) a more considered reading of the strange ode to the Bay State takes form. The good news: there’s a way to interpret this where they aren’t just making unevolved gay jokes. Ylvis’s work regularly traffics in a kind of social commentary that forces people to examine popularly accepted but byzantine attitudes. My favorite example (which is in no way safe for work) is “Work It.” It’s a parody of the way rappers objectify females and their sexuality. These aren’t the kind of comedians from whom you’d expect a simple “Massachusetts is gay!” joke.

The bad news: they are mocking us. At least as I now read it, the song is a send-up of a specific kind of American exceptionalism—not the jingoistic exceptionalism of Sarah Palin and the like, but, to quote an email I received, a suggestion that “the U.S. tends to take credit for most of the progressive achievements in the world.” It’s the kind of critique that only smug Scandinavians (or maybe smug Canadians?) could put forth.

There’s still an element of randomness to their humor. But seen in this context—the song is aimed at their longtime fans, not their new American bandwagoners—the song might be better read as a sarcastic commentary on the idea that Massachusetts is a progressive paradise. They highlight fairly pedestrian advantages to our state. “Only four hours from New York!” “Read local books for free at the Boston Library! Or try the local brie!” Smug Europeans, with their cheeses and their stratospheric literacy rates, can only look at this and laugh. “It’s a melting pot my friend. So many cultures hand in hand!” (Of that line, a correspondent writes, “Even as a Norwegian, it is well known that [Massachusetts] may not be the stereotypical melting pot.”) Meet enough Europeans, and you start to hear this kind of criticism of America’s self-regard all the time.

And then there’s the creeping homophobia that starts to insert itself as the song continues. That was the chief concern of most (non-homophobic) American viewers who didn’t quite get where it was going but saw echoes of a sort of odious middle school “you’re gay!” humor we come to expect from our own bro-ier, late-night comedians. (I’m looking at you, Tosh.O.) This, I’m told, is where America most misinterpreted Ylvis’s intention. They apparently regularly confront their own audiences with discomfort about homosexuality. In a recent episode of their talk show, Bård “buddy-kissed” their sidekick Calle, causing much commentary among viewers. The line “just because you’re kissing a man doesn’t make you gay” would thus read pretty differently to regular viewers of their show than it does here. They’re saying, “Get over it,” to those who were uncomfortable with their recent public display of affection. The rest of the video’s homophobia might be read as parody, though I’m not entirely convinced or clear on the intent behind some of it. But it seems meant to point out that while we’re a state that lauds our achievements on gay rights, we’re also a place where you can still regularly hear the kind of “cocksucker” jokes these guys are making as they champion our state’s “melting pot” of cultures.

It’s on that point and others, though, where I think the video remains unfair. Perhaps they’re telling Scandinavians what they think they know about the United States, Massachusetts, and our narcissism. But even with context, to this defensive life-long Massachusetts citizen, the parody seems to miss its mark. Sure, Massachusetts may engage in some of the same knee-jerk assumptions that the American ways of doing things are the best ways, no matter what. But we’re also more immune to that than other political climates. When we embrace advances like gay marriage and health care reform, we do so while pointing to the examples set in other societies that have implemented similar changes. It just doesn’t feel true to say that everyone here thinks we are the world’s first to every progressive achievement. We know we’re not.

Perhaps Americans were guilty of a certain exceptionalism wherein we saw something on YouTube about us and assumed we were its intended audience. But intended or not, we are an audience, entitled to an opinion on the effort. And this video feels like a cartoonish portrait of the dumb, self-important Americans that Europeans often think they see from afar, rather than a cutting parody that strikes in places where we’re actually vulnerable. On the other hand, if we’re going to be parodied, it’s just refreshing to have it focus on something other than accents, sports fanatics, or South Boston gangsters for a change.