In an unlikely love match of Soviet nostalgia and social networking, the almost-forgotten radio star Eduard Khil – known as Mr. Trololo man – has suddenly become a YouTube pop icon with his own Facebook fanpage.
A 40-year-old clip from Soviet TV, starring a chubby and ruddy-faced Mr. Khil, decked out in a tacky Soviet polyester suit, has gone viral in recent weeks, garnering more than 2 million hits and sparked an Internet petition urging him to undertake a global tour to reignite his career. (Watch the video below.)
Reached at his St. Petersburg home, the elderly Khil would not give any response to the petition, offering a bit of philosophy instead.
"What is fame?" said Khil, a big star in his day. "[Russian poet Alexander] Pushkin said it's just a bright patch upon a shabby singer's rags. When it happens, it happens."
And now, fame has definitely happened – again. Unearthed by the Internet, one of Khil's ancient gigs has earned him sudden recognition, seemingly the world over, as the "Trololo Man" (also spelled Trolololo) after the repetitious, warbling tone in which he delivers the song.
Khil, a fine baritone, is shown crooning a wordless but catchy little tune titled, "I'm so happy to be finally back home," while strolling and gesturing dramatically amid a bizarre backdrop of ornate metallic constructions.
On the phone, he explained that the reason the iconic song has no lyrics is that the original ones, about a cowboy riding the range while his wife sits at home knitting socks, were banned as "too naughty" by Soviet censors of the day.
"A theme like that was unacceptable, so we decided to sing it without any words at all," he said. "So, in this case, I was an instrument rather than a singer."
Stephen Colbert is a fan
It's not clear whether it's the weird Sovietesque kitsch of the piece, the irritatingly addictive melody, or Khil's over-the-top performance that has attracted so much belated attention.
But it has received backhanded accolades from no less than Stephen Colbert – who highlighted it as a tonic for disappointment – and Christoph Waltz, the Oscar-winning star of "Inglourious Basterds," who offered his own bawdy rendition on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!
"This is a new media sensation, and an interesting example of how the instant-messaging culture works," says Alexei Goreslavsky, director of Internet projects for the independent Russian Interfax news agency. "People browse the Internet, find things that are funny, or cute, or odd, and immediately want to share them with friends. That's how something like this comes from nowhere, and suddenly it seems to be everywhere.
Khil's son Dmitry, also a musician, says his dad doesn't really know what the Internet is and suspects all this newfound attention is some kind of joke.
"He thinks maybe someone is trying to make a fool of him," says Dmitry. "He keeps asking, 'Where were all these journalists 40 years ago?'"
Turning fans into cash
"Khil was a brilliant professional," says Anatoly Portnov, a well-known Russian composer. "There are no singers like him nowadays. Soviet songs had a lot of good things in them; it wasn't just about glory to the Communist Party. These days, you hear good works like that so seldom...."
Ironically, the honor of representing Russia in Eurovision this year was won by Pyotr Nalich, an edgy singer who shunned the traditional routes to success and rose to popularity almost exclusively through YouTube exposure.
"If you ask a young person today who Khil is, they will answer that he's the Trolololo man," says Mr. Goreslavsky. "That's a kind of name recognition created by this new culture, and it can lead to new interest in him and his work. Khil can convert that into new success, and real money, if he wants to."