The internet has given birth to a generation of fleeting characters. They're faces we've seen over and over again, to the point of being more familiar with them than some of our actual mates, without ever knowing their names. They surge in popularity and notoriety for brief spells, only to dip, and later reappear. They are anonymous but known to all. People who exist only as far as a gif, a meme, or a viral video. This is no truer than of the man in this video.
The chances are you will definitely have seen that video before. The throbbing trance pads, the flat claps, the ethereal backing singer, and then that voice....that chorus. Quite out of nowhere, this strange Macaulay Culkin lookalike in a sequined suit opens his mouth to reveal what can only be described as: "ah oh ah, ah oh ah, ah oh ah, ah oh ah ah, blululululu, ah oh ah." Your first response is to laugh, because it's funny right? The silly high voice? But then, strangely you find yourself welling up, because it isn't just funny, it's beautiful. It's other-worldly, enchanting, and inhuman. You find yourself listening to the whole track, long after the laughter stops.
It's this experience that has turned the performance into the anonymous phenomenon that it is. Supposedly following its posting by the Facebook page of American TV show The Soup, the song's chorus has become known all over the Western world. Why use the phrase Western world? Well because it was already pretty well-known elsewhere.
The song is actually called "7th Element," and the performer's name is Vitas. He is, in fact, a pretty huge deal. While the version embedded above is probably the Vitas video you'll have seen, it's worth having a look at this one as well. This is the trailer for his 2003 Baltic tour. Not a laugh in sight. The guy is a sensation.
Here are some facts about Vitas, according to his website:
-He has won awards declaring him Russia's laureate ten times through various competitions.
-He is recognised as Russia's most prolific live performer between the years of 2001 and 2003.
-He is the youngest artist to have ever performed solo at the Kremlin.
-He was MTV Asia's best foreign performer in 2011.
-He is also a fashion designer, having presented his Autumn Dreams collection in 2002, again, at the Kremlin.
-His album A Kiss As Long As Eternity sold more than 2 million copies in less than half a year.
-He has released 16 studio albums.
Here is a testimony from one of his fans in Moscow called Irina, as presented on his website:
"Oh, my God!!! Bless him! Give him Patience, Gladness, hearty Light, Inspiration and Love... Each his work like a new pearl appears in our hearts with tears of gladness as heaven-sent!!!!! You want to hear him again and again,... infinitely! I breathe this voice, plunging into thin ethereal world, but I cannot get to know this sweet secret of life... As a crystal starts to play with different colors of a rainbow, when the beam of the sun falls to it, as unsurpassed pure voice of Vitas plays and sparkles with all shades in a beam of divine light."
That's high praise for the "weird Russian singer" isn't it? But, then again, is it?
Doesn't it make sense? Doesn't it make complete and utter sense? How could something as spell-bindingly singular as Vitas' "7th Element" simply be the butt of a joke. Of course, in his homeland, he is recognised as a shining light. Of course his fans breathe his voice. Of course. Listen to him again. He's even got bars. And what of his other work? Well, if you liked "7th Element" you might like "Opera 2"—Russia's best selling record in 2001, 2002, AND 2003. THAT'S THREE WHOLE YEARS.
Vitas has gills. Vitas screams to the heavens, and an adoring crowd scream back. And they are adoring. In pretty much every post-communist state, and now in China as well, he is essentially all four-Beatles and David Bowie happening at once.
In fact everyone who comes into contact with Vitas seems gripped by a strange, God-like adoration of him. The below video is one of his few, if only, on camera interviews. During the film he introduces the interviewer to his bizarre gold-plated world, seated with his wife and daughter. At around the four and a half minute mark, he asks his daughter to recite a poem.
"I love your bright smile," she says to her father, "it's like the light in the window." Her words are touched by the same, almost terrifying levels of worship. This insatiable desire to bless Vitas with angelic, even saint-like qualities. The entire time Vitas sits placidly, his jacket sparkling like a black diamond. At the eighteen minute mark there is even the highly traumatic video of a female Chinese fan fainting after receiving a hug from Vitas. "Security," he shouts, as the audience screams back.
The only slight signs of any cracks in this weirdly pristine universe come in the form of a video, which surfaced in 2013, of the singer-songwriter following a traffic incident. Vitas was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol having hit a cyclist and the disturbing leaked footage shows both his arrest as well as his distressed wife trying her best to stop onlookers from filming the scene. It's not a pretty video, but happily as his Wikipedia details, the incident certainly hasn't affected his popularity—he sold out all his following live dates regardless.
There's a bit of a lesson here though, and it doesn't have anything to do with drunk driving. What for us was a clip, literally titled "weird Russian singer," is in fact a tiny segment of the career of one of the biggest, most prolific musicians on the planet. It says a lot about how small we think the world has become, versus how much we are still totally ignorant to. Discovering the cult of Vitas feels strangely like finding out about a religion we never knew existed, despite it being practiced by a third of the world.
It goes to show, one man's meme is another's Eastern Bloc Michael Jackson.