vulture investigates

How Death, Dismemberment, and Jesus Helped ‘Baby Shark’ Become a Hit

Photo: YouTube

If you’ve spent any time around children in the last five years, you’ve almost certainly heard “Baby Shark.” Maybe you’ve even learned the viral hit’s accompanying choreography, with its chomping jaws, illustrating the tale of the titular shark and its family as they search for prey. Then, after futilely trying to get the song out of your head, you’ll wonder, “Why, oh why, of all the kids’ songs out there, did this one become a worldwide smash?”

Unlike the clear blue cartoon waters seen in the music video, the answer is actually pretty murky. The simple answer is that the song, released in 2015 by South Korean educational company Pinkfong, is incredibly catchy, and the lyrics and dance moves are easy to memorize. In the years since, the track went global, peaking at No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 on January 12 after billions of YouTube plays, streams, and downloads. The twist, however, is that thousands of adults already knew the song from their childhoods, though in most cases the version they remember probably involved eating swimmers’ legs or being reincarnated with some help from Jesus.

For starters, here’s what we know about who originally wrote the song: absolutely nothing. Nobody has claimed ownership of the lyrics, and the only evidence of its longevity is the foggy memories of adults who learned the tune at summer camps, Christian youth groups, and anywhere else someone needed to keep kids occupied. Perhaps it was an imaginative counselor who saw Jaws and decided it was the perfect subject matter — after all, kids already know the horrors of “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and all the Disney movies that begin with a dead parent or two, so what’s wrong with a shark family having its dinner?

Like Brothers Grimm tales, folk songs, and classic jokes, “Baby Shark” is part of an oral tradition, believed to have started as a campfire song that was never put to paper, just passed down for new generations to put their own twists on it. As children’s entertainer Johnny Only points out, “Baby Shark” likely developed from a chant, which differs from a traditional song in that it doesn’t require instruments or musical talent, so all the kids can participate.

“Counselors didn’t want nonmusical kids to be left out, so a chant was often preferred,” he says. “Choreography and changing the words was essential for the short attention spans of the campers. One way to use the ‘Baby Shark’ formula is to break the kids up in groups and have them come up with their own version to see who could come up with the most creative lyrics and motions.”

That’s where you’d get the version like Pete Vigeant’s, which is the oldest recorded one available on YouTube, uploaded in 2008. In it, Vigeant and a friend sing “lose a leg,” “lose another leg,” and “lose a head,” in addition to all the now familiar shark lines. “I was working at a YMCA camp. I ran all the activities and sang songs, and a 6-year-old girl taught me ‘Baby Shark’ in 2001,” he says. “In 2004 or 2005, I thought, hey, let me take this Flip cam and record all these camp songs. The most popular was ‘Baby Shark,’ and by the time Google Video shut down, it had about 800,000 views.”

Another take on it, uploaded in 2011, comes from family entertainer Jester Jim Maurer and includes the Bible bent of “going to see Jesus” after the lifeguard on duty’s failed attempts at reviving the doomed swimmer with CPR.

“I learned it at church camp in 1999, my junior year of high school. It was taught by a seminarian there while we were waiting for lunch,” he says. “I then became a youth director and taught the songs to teen groups at conferences. One of the teens had messaged me asking me how to sing the song, so I made that video back in 2011 to teach the lyrics.” Other religious versions include “praising God” and “going to heaven,” and even one about the swimmer being reincarnated as the baby shark.

To add another twist to the “Baby Shark” saga, the song somehow made its way over to Europe, with the same general plot and choreography. In 2007, it became a dance hit in Germany thanks to Alexandra Müller, whose a cappella rendition, “Kleiner Hai,” came replete with the screams of the devoured swimmer and went viral. The music label EMI bought the rights to her performance and remixed it with Jaws-like music, making it a hit around the continent.

“I’ve been doing this song for almost 20 years, always around New Year’s. We’ve been singing the song for as long as I remember,” says Müller, who went by the stage name Alemel, and never recorded again. “It’s a popular children’s song in Germany. We never found out where it came from. We checked the rights and it was public law, like a Christmas song, so there were no royalties for [the lyrics].” The popularity of “Kleiner Hai” faded in 2008, and Muller is now a journalist for SWR. While she doesn’t get recognized for the tune anymore, she regales co-workers and new acquaintances with her one-hit-wonder past as a one-hit wonder. (She’d also love to perform it on Ellen.)

The existence of “Kleiner Hai” and its publishing history was unbeknownst to Pinkfong and Only, who recorded and copyrighted his own rendition in 2011, until the former’s version blew up. SmartStudy, the company that owns Pinkfong, is certainly enjoying the phenomenon, with singing “Baby Shark” toys selling out on Amazon almost immediately before the holidays. Only, however, claims that the Pinkfong version lifted too much from his rendition, “Baby Shark (Non-Dismemberment Version),” and therefore he deserves a bite of the profits.

“When an artist publishes their own version of a public domain piece, they have created their own derivative of that work. My reaction to the Pinkfong version was that they picked up on my toddler-friendly lyrics, my key, my driving beat, my tempo, and my shortened duration,” he says. “If you search YouTube, almost all the ones before mine are camp versions with blood and gore, loss of limbs, and frequently death. The toddlers also like the shark family and the fact that I made it shorter.” (According to MEL Magazine, SmartStudy says it simply improved a “traditional singalong chant by adding upbeat rhythms and fresh melody.”)

While the case is still going through motions in court, copyright attorney and USC professor Corey Field says that, in the United States, a claim like that could be valid. In short, a judge will hear from lawyers and experts who microscopically pore over the minutiae, such as the notes, BPM, lyrics, and any other musical flourishes, then proceed to a jury trial if there’s enough evidence to say the claim has merit.

“With copyrights, you can only claim ownership of original material or material that’s added. It has to be more than tiny changes,” Field says, noting that he’s not commenting on song copyrights in general, not Only’s case. “We have the principle of fair use. ‘I’m transforming something that someone else did but I’m not doing it just because it sounds great. I’m doing it because I’m making some other comment.’ And you have public domain, which allows you to use works after a certain amount of time. It’s like Metallica doing ‘Carol of the Bells.’”

The only definitive way that SmartStudy, Only, and anyone else who’s made money off of “Baby Shark” is if the true author comes forward with proof, whether it’s a video or lyric sheet that can be verified as coming before any other copyright. “I know there’s some poor old songsmith out there who just has no idea,” says Vigeant, laughing.

Until then, we’ll have to be content not knowing who dreamed up this juggernaut of an earworm. But at least we know that anybody can find an old song of unknown origin and create their own “Baby Shark,” provided they have the right combination of talent, social-media savvy, and the foresight to write it down or record it first. The ability to stomach repeated refrains of “doo doo doo doo doo doo” helps, too.

How Death, Dismemberment, and Jesus Made ‘Baby Shark’ a Hit