There’s a virus spreading around the globe, but the symptoms aren’t fever or body aches. No, this epidemic manifests itself in giggles and grins, waving hands, pumping hips and a bubbly chorus that goes like this:
“Nossa, nossa, assim voce me mata. Ai, se eu te pego, ai, se eu te pego!” (Wow, wow, you’re gonna kill me that way. Oh, if I catch you, Oh my God, if I catch you!)
Ai Se Eu Te Pego (Oh If I Catch You), a pop song by Brazilian heartthrob Michel Telo, may not be Sondheim, but neither were I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Macarena, its predecessors as massive, mysterious global hits. Indeed, Ai Se Eu Te Pego may be the most popular song to come out of Brazil since The Girl From Ipanema.
The danceable ditty, which has generated nearly half a billion YouTube hits, has upped Brazil’s pop-culture presence as the country’s surging economy and political clout — and its role as host of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics — have increased its presence on the world stage.
Now the Ai Se Eu Te Pego wave is beginning to wash over this country. The song has topped U.S. Spanish language radio charts for several weeks, and Telo makes his U.S. debut Thursday at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, which will be broadcast live on Telemundo from BankUnited Center in Coral Gables.
Neither the singer nor his label, Brazil’s Som Livre, can explain the phenomenon.
"There’s some magic element to the song,” Telo said by telephone from Sao Paulo. “We recently toured in Europe and people were singing the song in Germany, in Holland, in Russia, in Switzerland, all these places. These people don’t know a word of Portuguese and they’re singing along.”
“We could never have imagined this,” said Som Livre CEO Marcelo Soares. “This was a first for us, a first for any of our artists, a first for anywhere in Brazil. It was absolutely unexpected.”
The song exemplifies the global, viral capabilities — and oddities — of the Internet. Released last summer, it became a hit in Brazil, but despite its catchy chorus and distinctive dance, it didn’t seem destined for international success.
Then Brazilian soccer players, most significantly hot young phenom Neymar, started doing the dance, passing it on to teammates in Europe. A video showing Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazilian teammate Marcelo celebrating a goal with the Eu Te Pego boogie went viral on YouTube, and soon players of the world’s most popular sport from Italy to England were celebrating to its rhythms.
The official video, with Telo singing along with an adoring crowd of Brazilian beauties, has racked up 300 million YouTube hits, and spinoff versions — soccer players, Turkish, Japanese and Russian language translations; SpongeBob, Teletubbies and Alvin and the Chipmunks parodies; toddler sing-alongs; a string quartet — have racked up tens of millions more views. (Standout oddities include a municipal band in Spain playing the tune in a Holy Week procession and armed Israeli soldiers dancing to it.)
The song has topped radio charts in 15 countries and been No. 1 in iTunes downloads in 25.
Portuguese may not be widely spoken, but the song is simple and almost irresistibly catchy, with an ecstatic audience sing-along that impels listeners to get in on the fun. The dance, which features waving hands and a gentle hip pump, adds to the party atmosphere.
“It’s one of those songs that sticks like bubblegum,” said Nir Seroussi, general manager of Sony Latin. His label is releasing it in the U.S. Latin market, which is usually off limits to Portuguese-language songs.
“It’s like a chant — it’s really an anthem,” Seroussi says. “And that has made it easier for people all over the world to chant it, understand it and sing along.”
Miami DJ and El Zol (WXDJ-FM) program director Jammin’ Johnny Caride was quick to recognize Ai Se Eu Te Pego’s similarities to Macarena, which he helped break in the U.S. in the 1990s as part of the team that remixed it in English. In January Caride began including Ai Se Eu Te Pego in his mix shows, and finally persuaded his bosses at Miami-based SBS Entertainment to add it to the radio chain’s playlist.
“Once somebody picked it up, everybody picked it up,” he said. “It’s like a virus, everybody’s spreading it around.”
The song represents something new in Brazil as well. Since his teens, Telo has been singing sertenejo, a rural, accordion-based style that has grown slicker and more mainstream. Ai Se Eu Te Pego was written by Sharon Acioly and Antonio Dyggs of Bahia, who got the simple lyrics — where a guy sees a beauty at a party and comes on to her in the chorus — from backup dancers who invented it during a Disney World vacation. (There has been a legal dispute between Acioly and the women over the song’s authorship; Telo and Som Livre are not involved.)
Telo, 31, flaunts his sertenejo roots in Ai Se Eu Se Pego, which heavily features accordion. That such a simple, country-style song should explode worldwide has caused chagrin among Brazilians partial to bossa nova, MPB and other sophisticated fusions, Livre’s Soares said.
“The so called cultural elite are saying, ‘Look, this does not represent our culture, it’s a shame that this is what is bringing Brazil to the rest of the world,’” he said. “How can Ai Se Eu Te Pego become as famous as The Girl from Ipanema? This is incomprehensible, unacceptable.
“But it’s not for nothing that so many people in the world are singing to it and dancing to it. ... For the first time people are starting to understand that this is really what represents most of Brazilian culture.”
And representing Brazilian culture is invaluable to a country on the rise, says Gene de Souza, Brazilian music booster and host of WDNA-FM’s Café Brasil.
“Everybody loves to bash a big hit,” Souza said. “But if it gives exposure, opens doors, if it gets people interested in Brazilian music — great.”
Part of the 1960s allure of Girl from Ipanema (also about a man admiring a passing beauty) was the sensual, nostalgic atmosphere it radiated. In a time of financial anxiety and political divisiveness, perhaps Ai Se Eu Te Pego offers another kind of escape, to a carefree moment of celebration and unity
“The song reflects the happiness and joy and the identity of the Brazilian people, and that’s what’s being carried around the world,” Telo said. “Even if they don’t understand it, I hope people feel the vibe of the song, the happiness of the song, that they dance to the song. Because in the end that’s what it’s all about.”