Reckoning With The Legacy Of Crazy Frog And The Song That Changed Culture Forever
From ironic shitposting to 100 Gecs to Minions, Crazy Frog created the world in which we live every day - like it or not.
Earlier this month, with the penchant for chaos that we’ve come to expect of the animated amphibian, Crazy Frog messily resurfaced in our lives.
First, the singing monstrosity made a Twitter account. Or, someone claiming to be him did. Even though the account was linked to the Frog’s verified website, it was hard to tell if it was legit, given that the person behind it spent much of their time tagging ironic meme lords like Ricky Berwick and PewDiePie.
New music was coming, the account promised. But “Crazy Frog” had more surprises: a few days later, a picture was posted on Twitter of the Frog committing suicide, his head poorly photoshopped into a noose.
There was an outcry. Eventually, the Frog apologised. He deleted the suicide threat. Then he deleted the apology.
— Crazy Frog (@TrueCrazyFrog) April 22, 2020
The internet at large reacted to all this noise with mostly resigned, accepting confusion. No-one was denying it was weird that one of the early internet’s first memes had returned after 12 years of silence before attempting a kind of meme-ified suicide. But we are used to weird, these days.
Our culture is saturated with layers of irony, deadpan jokes, and straight-out misinformation. You can only spend so long on the internet before your definitions of “true” and “false” get somewhat warped. Was Crazy Frog back? Was he really dead? Who knew? And who cared? The whole saga was operating under so many conflicting, artificial meanings, that the incident appeared to matter both a great deal, and not in the slightest.
Which is ironic, given that Crazy Frog himself was one of the first figures to popularise that very same culture of irony. He didn’t create the digital world we live in. But he sure helped mould it. And it’s time we reckon with his legacy.
Crazy Frog: Origins
The year was 1997, and a young man in Gothenburg, Daniel Malmedahl, had just discovered a new skill: he was pretty good at recreating the sound of a two-stroke engine, his lips bubbling around the sound. So he recorded himself doing it. The resulting audio file delighted him. He played it to his friends. “We found it very, very funny,” Malmedahl said back in 2005 in an interview with the BBC. “We laughed until we got tears.”
And then, aimlessly, he did what any young person in the mid-’90s would do. He uploaded the sound to this cool thing called the internet, giving the file the decidedly not-Googleable title ‘2TAKTARE.MP3’.
The internet was, of course, very different back in those days. The idea that “the ‘net” could help you become a mega-rich and famous vlogger was unheard of. It wasn’t yet a business. It was a kind of run-down digital playground, a giant board upon which you could pin any random scrap of content you liked. YouTube was still eight years off. It was mainstream television that sent people “viral” — but no one called it that.
Which is why Malmedahl’s audio file only started to attract real attention when a “Swedish television researcher” convinced the young man to perform the noise live on TV. After that, the sound started popping up everywhere. It became part of an “insanity test”, a popular web-based experiment in which users challenged themselves to listen to the abrasive bubbling for as long as possible. And, in 2003, it caught the eye of an animator named Erik Wernquist, who was the next piece in the Crazy Frog puzzle.
Wernquist didn’t know who had performed the original sound; he discovered it floating around the internet as an anonymous clip. But it activated something in him. Over the course of eight weeks, Wernquist designed the monster that he felt would be most likely to make such hideous gurgling. When he was done, he called the creature “The Annoying Thing”, and slapped a video of it performing Malmedahl’s whining on his website, available to download fro free.
“I just had fun doing it,” Wernquist would eventually say. “I wanted to invent a funny thing.”
Like Malmedahl, Wernquist was just fooling around, sharing his work for free on those early, janky websites populated mostly by animation nerds. But soon, “The Annoying Thing” started making the rounds of a wider culture.
Eventually, it even made its way back to Malmedahl. “Little more than a month after I had put the animation up I got a phone call from a somewhat confused person claiming he recognised the sound in my animation as his own creation,” Wernquist would later explain.
“I was a little uncertain at first, but when he gave me the ‘proof’ of performing the sound live on the phone there was no doubt he was the guy I was looking for.” As Wernquist tells it, Malmedahl didn’t even know his original recording had spread past that first television appearance. The clip’s quasi-viral life had totally passed him by.
The Annoying Thing had become one of the internet’s first memes. It pre-dated the “jump scare car ad” by two years; the “I Can Has Cheeseburger?” cat by four. Most people didn’t even have the language to describe such a clip. This was still the era of chain emails.
But the Thing had become undeniable. And so, with a creaky predictability, big business got involved. A telecommunications company known as Jamba! bought the character and the audio, renaming the Thing “Crazy Frog” and using it to market ringtones. Wernquist and Malmedahl both received some compensation for their creation, but the former in particular was unhappy about the new direction of the character.
“It’s not a frog and it’s not particularly crazy either.”
“If I had known that this was going to be such a big thing I would not have allowed them to use that stupid name,” Wernquist said. “It has nothing to do with the character. It’s not a frog and it’s not particularly crazy either.”
Neither of the original duo had anything to do with the music that Crazy Frog would later produce. By his own admission, Wernquist felt it was sensible to leave that whole side of things to the marketing department at Jamba!, and deal only with the character himself. “My thought at the time was that whatever this is going to be, this is obviously a commercial project and whatever kind of music they choose to run with isn’t going to be my kind of music anyway.”
Bizarrely, adding curveballs on top of curveballs, that music ended up being a sped-up version of the theme song for Eddie Murphy police comedy Beverly Hills Cop. Why? Who knows. Certainly not Wernquist or Malmedahl.
And so, all these pieces now slotted into place, the world was introduced to Crazy Frog as we now know him — a grey, pudgy goblin with his penis out, hat clamped around his skull, scooting through a dystopian landscape and humming a tune somewhat similar to Malmedahl’s first antic burbling.
The clip was a massive success. Titled ‘Axel F’, it outsold a Coldplay single, and began dominating the charts. The strange digital subculture had finally hit the mainstream. And that strangeness was precisely the selling point.
Crazy Frog was so successful because he was so inane; because his domination of the charts seemed so unlikely. The general public was quickly realising how funny it was when work made by “outsiders” (Jamba!’s involvement not withstanding) toppled the establishment, disrupting the standards of the music industry. It all seemed so fun, so chaotic. And so the table was set for further sensations: the ‘Numa Numa’ guy; the sneezing panda; the ‘Peanut Butter Jelly Dance’, more dashed-off bits of content that eventually became media sensations.
Again, Crazy Frog wasn’t the first meme. Nor did he single-handedly change the internet. But he was the naked, blue-skinned canary down the coalmine: proof that times were not only changing, but changing fast.
There are all sorts of trends that can be directly attributed to Crazy Frog. The Minions, small deviants with funny voices, owe everything to the Frog. So does the ‘Gummy Bear Song’, a viral German trend that has racked up two billion views on YouTube. Even ‘Eating Sugar?’, last year’s viral YouTube sensation, followed the precise formula laid down by Jamba! and their semi-naked amphibian.
Nor is Frog’s impact only to be felt on the internet. He has had an equally important influence on alternative music, too. 100 Gecs and Dorian Electra are but a couple examples of a trend that has seen the ironic and the oversaturated become cool again.
Indeed, the former band’s ‘Money Machine’, a song that starts with an admonishment to piss babies everywhere, has the precise energy of ‘Axel F.’ Both are deliberately janky and overcranked, and both make great play of quite how far from good taste that they are situated. And both reached something approximating the mainstream precisely because that atmospheric rise was so unexpected.
Then there is the general culture of our times. Grainy, pixellated memes are a kind of humour in themselves; Facebook wine mum exploitables, most of them spotted with Minions, are constantly being inverted, their meanings snipped clean away; jokes are funny precisely because they’re not funny. The joy arises from the interplay between all of these different meanings, and how easy it is to subvert and scramble each.
So it was with Crazy Frog. He was funny because he was quite so unfunny; popular because he was an animated doodle, dashed together by an animator and a teenager making car noises with his mouth.
Despite everything, and above all else, Crazy Frog was born from love.
That said, if there is any difference between the Frog and the culture he helped spawn, it is that Crazy Frog can make some claim to innocence. No-one involved, not even Jamba!, thrust him into the public with any knowledge that the mascot might make them a lot of money. Jamba! clearly hoped he might. But there was no precedent for such success.
As for Malmedahl, how could he have ever guessed that a sub-par imitation of a two-stroke engine would take over the world? Neither he nor Wernquist charged for their content. They created because they felt like it, and then shared their creations with the internet because they felt like doing that too.
That feels like a far cry from our cynical, money-hungry digital world, a system in which content has been monetised, our phones filled with teenagers forcing their parents to shakily perform viral dance trends with the hope of becoming TikTok famous. Despite everything, and above all else, Crazy Frog was born from love. How many other memes can you say that about?
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.