If you grew up in the 1970s you probably remember this video or one like it:
You’re probably singing it in your head right now. In fact, I suspect you’ll be singing it in your head for the next few hours. It’s that sort of song. It’s so catchy and so weird. This version aired on the first season of Sesame Street and established the show as the kind of crazy cool that parents wanted their children to see. But, this song didn’t start there. Its story is a bit strange and hard to understand.
This was a real song and it was a real hit. Yes really.
The song, which may have originally been called “Viva la Sauna Svedese,” was first unleashed to the world in 1966. Here’s an audio version, and you can see it’s slightly different from the version you remember:
Here’s a clip from the original presentation, in the film Svezia inferno e paradiso. It’s about as far away from the Muppets as you’re going to get.
A hit on the radio if you can believe it
Mah Nà Mah Nà, with accents over the “a’s,” started getting radio airplay in 1968 and 1969. It peaked in the US at number 55 on the charts, and went higher in other countries. It was released as a single along with another nonsense song, Doo Bee Doo Bee Doo, because of course it was. That song makes a similar amount of sense.
So by the time the song was performed by the Muppets, first on the Red Skelton Show and then on Sesame Street, it was already well known. A generation would grow up thinking of it as a Muppet song but really that was the song’s second life, not its first. Yeah, I know, I was a little surprised too.
A semi-serious analysis of Mah Nà Mah Nà
I think it’s fair to say that Mah Na Mah Na (with or without accents) is a catchy tune. And it’s a lot of fun to sing. You don’t need to know the lyrics because there aren’t any. But there’s more to the song than that.
As originally performed by The Muppets, you can see that it showed the clash between good, surburban (probably white) girls and a groovy, hip (possibly black) boy. This echoed a lot of what was going on in the world at the time. Cultures were clashing all over the world. Mah Na Ma Nah, by virtue of being sung by puppets, allowed people to enjoy the culture clash and embrace the freedom that the hippie culture represented without worrying about the political ramifications.
The Muppet performers almost immediately morphed further away from reality as shown in this 1969 video:
Where the hippie character got even crazier and the girls were replaced by some sort of pink alien. This has come to be thought of the “canonical” set of performers, and you can see it in a more recent performance of the song from 2011’s film adaptation, The Muppets.
Removing any sort of social context from the performers makes it more timeless, which is one of the reasons the song is still so much fun.
Nonsense songs are really ok
There were nonsense songs before Mah Na Mah Na and certainly there were many after. One of the earliest that reached national fame was Three Little Fishies (Itty Bitty Poo) by Kay Kyser, also recorded by The Andrews Sisters:
…and nonsense songs were a big part of the teenage experience in the years around the second World War. Novelty performers like Spike Jones kept the trend alive for years as well.
For years, I was convinced that Rihanna songs like Umbrella and Work were nothing but nonsense syllables. It turns out that was just my unfamiliarity with the songs. Still, the repeated syllables do give both songs a bit of a nonsense quality.
What’s next for Mah Na Mah Na?
This song will live, probably forever as a children’s tune. It’s not likely that it will ever approach the levels of popularity it had in the late twentieth century. Nor will it ever make the inexplicable jump from novelty song played over images of women in a sauna to a children’s show staple again. No matter, I’ll be humming it for a new more hours. Care to join me?