Michel Teló has become something of a Justin Bieber figure in Brazil: a wildly popular singer who is also reviled by those who see him as cheesy or untalented. But his fame has spread well beyond Brazil, from Europe to the Middle East. The sertanejo (country music) singer's hit "Ai Se Eu Te Pego," (If I Get You) a short, incredibly catchy hit combined with simple choreography, has become a worldwide hit, appearing in Youtube videos in various languages and starring in not one but two Israeli videos (one of soldiers in uniform dancing, and another in a political satire music video). Videos of how to do the choreography are also all over the web. The song became the top selling song on iTunes in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, Chile, and Argentina, and according to Época, it is now the most-listened to Brazilian song in Youtube history. It also was in the top 10 in Belgium, Germany, France, Holland, Poland, and Switzerland.
Part of the reason for the song's worldwide popularity is because several famous athletes danced to the choregraphy to celebrate wins or in the locker room, namely Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, as well as Rafael Nadal. After that, soccer players from Brazil, Europe and Turkey starting using the dance to celebrate goals. Denver Nuggets players from Brazil, Spain, Italy, Greece, Russia, and the U.S. also danced to the song in a video shot at the team gym.
The popularity of both the song and the singer lie partially in the soccer connection, as well as the shared cultural lines between Latin America and Europe. Though Teló released the song today in English, it seems unlikely it will gain much traction in North America, but it does seem possible he'll continue to maintain his fame, at least for a little while, in Europe and South America.
Despite Brazilians' varying opinions on Teló and his music, it seems he's an example of the enormous potential of Brazilian soft power. As Forbes columnist Anderson Antunes points out in a profile on Teló, several Brazilian stars have tried to go global without success. While many Teló fans may not even understand the song lyrics, or even know what kind of music he sings (I've seen several references to Ai Se Eu Te Pego as "samba"), they know he's from Brazil.
Brazil isn't just seen as an economic heavyweight, or a growing political power in the developing world. Part of its power lies in soft power, of which cultural exports beyond soccer and Carnival could become increasingly more important. From 2005 to 2010, Brazil's soft power ranking doubled, making it the soft power leader in Latin America in 2010 and the 4th most powerful among developing countries. Brazilians were ranked as the second "coolest" nationality, based on an international 2011 survey by website Badoo. A 2011 country branding index measuring the degree to which people admire other countries based on a number of factors--including culture--put Brazil in 20th place, the highest among developing countries. Even international Google search queries about Brazil are on the rise. With the World Cup and Olympics approaching, there are even more opportunities for Brazilian stars to make it big abroad, especially in Europe.
Despite the international appeal, elements of Brazilian popular culture like Michel Teló are somewhat controversial in Brazil. A growing middle class has created something of a cultural divide between the traditional middle class and the new "C class." Music like Teló's represents the new middle class, one from suburban or rural areas with an affinity for entertainment traditionally popular among the working class. In other words, while Brazil's lower income families expand their wealth through increased wages and more employment opportunities, their cultural preferences tend to stay the same, which can make the old middle class elite uncomfortable. But as with other Brazilian cultural trends that began amongst the country's poor or working classes, it can also gradually permeate the country's culture. Sociologist Heloísa Buarque de Hollanda explained in an article about Teló that Teló's music came from a part of society that now has greater legitimacy, and that this part of society from city outskirts and from rural areas have begun to have a greater influence on culture and consumption. Says the article: "The periphery has become a center of innovation in music, behavior, and even fashion."
In an opinion piece entitled "Is Brazil embarrassed by Brazil?" for website Brainstorm9, tech entrepreneur Bob Wollheim explains how Teló's popularity, particularly through social media, has exposed this cultural tension:
"It's interesting that social media has become an enormous mirror for us, a huge window where we are all exposed, everything there for whoever wants to look. The subjects are naked! Orkut, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, it doesn't matter where we are, we're there ridiculing our own idiosyncracies, our ways, our flexible ethics, our 'do as I say, not as I do,' our Gerson's law, our Brazilian jeitinho, our musical and literary tastes, our humor, our education, our religion, our syncretism, our habits, our customs, our languages, our prejudices, our racism, our originality, our inventiveness, in other words - all of our Brazilianness!"
So while Spaniards and Turks sing "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" and German soccer players dance to Michel Teló, they're unaware that one of Brazil's latest cultural phenomena is actually revealing an long-debated question about what "real" Brazilian culture should be--and whether to celebrate it or reject it.