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The Curious History of the Virus Known as “Baby Shark”

Imagine if John Williams’ legendary theme from Jaws went to Ibiza, took a bunch of Molly and started disco-dancing.

When you think of top-40 hit-makers, you probably think of respected rappers like Jay-Z or iconic singers like Beyonce. Heck, you may even think about superstars outside that, particularly star-studded marriage. But, I’m guessing you do not envision a pair of South Korean children with endearingly dorky, deer-in-the-headlights looks of surprise bordering on mortification chanting their way through a sadistically catchy ditty about a family of sharks on the hunt against a cheaply animated backdrop. Yet in January the Billboard charts welcomed a curious and unlikely new entry in the form of South Korean educational brand Pinkfong’s insanely infectious ditty “Baby Shark”, which debuted at 32 in the top 100.

If you’re reading this and do not live in the proverbial cave, there is a very good chance that you are all too familiar with “Baby Shark.” Chances are good that you’ve probably got that clamorous ditty running rampant inside your infected psyche right now, particularly the “doo doo doo, doo doo doo” part.

How the hell does a song about a family of sharks, sung by children who don’t seem to realize they’re in a music video, let alone an international smash, make it onto the same Billboard Top 40 charts that was previously the domain of more dignified acts like Milli Vanilli, Rick Dees and Crazy Frog?

For starters, “Baby Shark” has been played on YouTube over two billion times. That’s right. Billions. Not millions, billions. In a world of some seven billion people, that means that something like one in four people have played this particular jam on YouTube. That’s good enough for the 20th most played YouTube video of all time. Suck it, Michael Jackson’s memory! No video you’ve done has approached the popularity of “Baby Shark” on YouTube. (And if I remember correctly, he did some pretty good videos. Some arguably better and more artful than “Baby Shark.”)

Where the fuck did this ditty of the damned come from? That is a good question. Technically speaking, it doesn’t really have an author or a songwriter, since it began life as a cross between a summer camp chant and a nursery rhyme whose origin is lost forever in the fog of time, although it may be Jaws-inspired thematically as well as musically.

In 2007, a German artist who performs under the name Alemuel posted a video of herself performing a version titled “Kleiner Hai” in a grainy, disorienting clip that is honestly more terrifying than anything found in most found fiction horror movies. Alemuel later recorded a dance version that hit 25 on the German charts over a decade before Babyfong’s version launched its improbable assault on the American Top 40.

Several years later, half a world away, a Canadian children’s performer named Johnny Only posted his own “Baby Shark” song on youtube in 2011. Though it was released years before the Pinkfog version that conquered the world, it has been viewed a little under 100,000 times. That’s substantially less than two billion.

Then Pinkfong got a hold of the song and cranked out a series of hit versions, including a Korean version that was criticized for lyrics ever so succinctly describing the various sharks along heavily gendered lines: Mommy shark is “pretty”, Daddy as “strong”, Grandma as “kind” and Grandpa as “cool.”

It’s disappointing that these shapers of our children’s fragile imaginations feel the need to put the family of sharks into tidy little boxes that correspond neatly to conventional conceptions of appropriate gender roles instead of concentrating on the sharks being unrelenting, inhuman killing machines with eyes black as midnight and murder in their souls.

Imagine if John Williams’ legendary theme from Jaws went to Ibiza, took a bunch of Molly and started disco-dancing and you have a sense of “Baby Shark Dance” from a musical perspective.

Lyrically, the song basically has two sections. First we’re introduced to the Shark family: Baby Shark (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo), Mommy Shark (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo), Daddy Shark (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo), Grandma Shark (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo) and finally, Grandpa Shark (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo).

Then comes the drama, the action, the pulse-pounding excitement. The sharks go hunting. Their prey runs away. The primal drama of hunter and hunted, predator and prey is resolved with the grateful would-be shark dinner reflecting joyously upon their survival and safety with more infernal chanting. Then comes the end. You know it’s the end because they start singing “It’s the end (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo)” with the same psychotic catchiness/meaninglessness as everything else.

Oh, and of course there’s a fucking dance to go along with it. What would a mind-meltingly stupid international fad novelty song be without a fucking dance to go along with it? That’s a world the old dudes who sang “Macarena” do not want to contemplate.

“Baby Shark” quickly became the new “Harlem Shake.” Everybody was doing it, even as everyone also seemed to agree that the whole strange phenomenon was played out.

Ellen Degeneres and James Corden both released their own versions of it because of course, they did. That’s pretty much their whole shtick. I’m surprised Jimmy Fallon hasn’t had a go at it as well, possibly in Neil Young’s voice. (Though, the other Jimmy, Jimmy Kimmel, did suggest the creators of Baby Shark should be arrested.)

“Baby Shark Dance” seemed to belong to everybody and nobody. Look up the song on Youtube or Google and prepare to go down a very weird, hypnotically terrible wormhole that includes things like “Baby Shark Remix Bombstyle”, an intense remix about twice as long as the original that has been viewed some eleven million times. That’s way more even than songs that are not aural nightmares.

Babyfong cannibalized the fuck out of itself by remaking their monster hit endlessly, with pandering variations like “Baby Car” and “Baby T-Rex.”

On a less soul-crushing note, the song/dance’s popularity did not escape the good people over at Sesame Street, who released their own version in the form of “Cookie Shark” with underwater versions of Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Cookie Monster taking the place of the confused-seeming children from the blockbuster original.

Needless to say, the Sesame Street version is way better than the amateurish Kidfong smash; a kid-friendly acid trip in YouTube video form. And that’s because the original both isn’t at all original and also is hypnotic trash. Yet for some reason, this well-executed, cleverly animated cover from one of the biggest, classiest names in kid’s entertainment, and entertainment in general, has been viewed about a million times. That’s over two billion times less than Kidfong’s top 40  “original.” 

It’s a testament to what a deeply bizarre phenomenon the “Baby Shark” is that of all the big-name covers and tributes and remixes from celebrities on both sides of the pond none can compete in popularity with the campy, English-language “Baby Shark Dance” clip that conquered the world. Kidfong’s signature smash went viral in the truest sense, in that it feels less like a song or a video and more like a disease listeners would like to scrub from their minds and bodies and has a sinister momentum all its own.

You can’t run away from this phenomenon just yet I’m afraid, (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo) but God willing it will burn itself out before too long.

Also like a virus, “Baby Shark” has proven itself almost disconcertingly resilient. So it’s entirely possible that a decade from now the ditty and the dance will re-emerge like long-dormant symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease and afflict the world all over again, and then every decade after that. Thank God my children will be too old to be affected by then and I personally would make the choice to bash my laptop in with a golf club rather than risk getting sucked into “Baby Shark” mania all over again.