Death of the Vuvuzela -- and the Novelty Song

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Coca-Cola South/Flickr


After the South African World Cup draws to a close Sunday, the nation will surely quiet down. International crowds will clear out, returning to their homes. The FIFA radius around stadiums will fold, allowing local vendors to return to business as usual. Each scream, chant, and cheer will die out, one voice at a time.

The vuvuzelas, they will remain. Many of the thousands upon thousands of plastic death-horns will be found in the streets, or in hotel rooms, or left in airport terminals by those who figured they might take the things as souvenirs, only to find they didn't fit in their luggage.

And, in an absolutely shocking turn of events, the rest of the world will follow suit. Indeed, by the time you read this, before Spain and the Netherlands compete for sole ownership of the Cup, you may have already stopped caring about the things.

It's exhausting, really, to parse just how much attention they drew through the Cup's run. Here at The Atlantic, we have over 60 unique articles containing the word "vuvuzela." Dig through any major news outlet's archives for the past month and a half, and you'll see the same spike. Cultural stories. Editorial complaints. Fans of other sports' opinions on the things. Scientific breakdowns of their frequencies. Jokes. Ringtones.

This isn't the treatment we typically deign on noise-makers or annoyances; Carrot Top never got that much love (nor has a ringtone... I hope). Guys, what we had in the rise and fall of the vuvuzela is really the clichéd lifespan of something far more sinister: the novelty song.

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jcestnik/Flickr


"Whoomp: There It Is." "Macarena." "Who Let The Dogs Out." "Tubthumping." "Mambo Number 5." Go ahead and add the distinctive bzzzzzzzzttt to that list.

This month, it was as pervasive a noise as the phrase "heyyyy Macarena" once was. The vuvuzela's racket was inserted into comedy routines and TV shows as the ultimate in easy-target sarcasm. The Onion took one of June's better swipes with a headline reading, South African Vuvuzela Philharmonic Angered By Soccer Games Breaking Out During Concerts.

Google even got into the act, inserting an auto-vuvuzela button into most YouTube videos. Worse, that's the site where you'll find "Blow That Vuvuzela," itself an atrocious novelty song.

I point all this out not necessarily to make a big deal about vuvuzelas; after all, we will have forgotten about them by the time my editor posts this. But once I made the connection, I had to ask myself: What, in this day and age, can stand out as a novelty song anymore?

Can songs bind people together in as unilateral a fashion as when "Tubthumping" took over the world for a couple of months? Absolutely not. Now that the way we consume culture is so fractured, the worlds of TV, radio, and other music distribution will never have a lock on our culture in the same way, whether through a cheeky anthem, a "Weird" Al Yankovic parody, or even a viral video. Closest you might get this point is the cast of Glee covering Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," itself too much of a Mobius strip of attribution to do anything other than figuratively vomit on itself .

Really, this summer's big "sound" only worked because of its low barrier of entry. No chorus. No competition on the pop charts. No loading times. In an age of endless bands, singles, and bloggers clamoring to claim first dibs on the hottest song tips, the only noise to aggregate to the top had the most harsh and consistent tone.

Now, that noise is silent. Certainly, the world's vuvuzelas won't vanish. African soccer matches will probably still be cursed with the bastions of buzz, just as they were before the World Cup. And the rest of the world's sporting and public events will see local insurance agencies and other sponsors handing horns out with smug grins attached for a month or so, late to the gag's funeral. But YouTube's vuvuzela button will surely go away soon, as will the spike in stories and chatter, and we'll wait another few years for the next big international pop sensation.

Presumably, it'll be the sound of animals mating, and that will be the world's highest grossing ringtone of all time.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.

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