Some things never leave you. The taste of your grandma’s cookies. The smell of your mom’s perfume. The sound of your baby’s first word. And of course, the spectacular tongue-flapping chorus of “The 7th Element” by Ukrainian-Russian singer Vitas, known personally as Vitaly Vladasovich Grachev and casually as the “weird Russian singer.”
The one-of-a-kind vocalist has occupied my mind (and the minds of many) since 2016, when the unusual music video spread like wildfire across the Western world, thanks in part to a viral Reddit post and the allure of an acclaimed androgynous-presenting man from such a socially conservative country. I see his silver jumpsuit and bedazzled crown when I close my eyes. I hear his “blalalalala, ahahaaaa” when I’m alone in the shower. And I feel his rapid-fire tongue clap — over and over — against my brain as I lie awake in bed at night.
Known in the West almost entirely as a meme, Vitas has a surprisingly lengthy series of accolades under his shimmering belt. In fact, he was super famous on the other side of the world more than a decade before going viral. He’s released an impressive 16 albums since he first appeared on the Russian stage in 2000, performing all around the world and amassing an immense pile of awards, especially in China. He also debuted his own clothing line in 2002 and even starred in Mulan: Rise of a Warrior in 2009.
Beyond a few scandalous moments — Vitas kicked a policeman after striking a cyclist with his car in 2013 (she was okay) and shot a gun into the air in 2018 — his fame hasn’t ceased since, somewhat because of his virality: Nearly 20 years after he had his start, Vitas and his supernatural tongue performed in 2019 at Tomorrowland, the largest EDM music festival in the world.
But meme or not, Vitas is also popular because he’s really, really talented. In the singing world, Vitas is much larger than just an alien-man with an untamed tongue. “Vitas’ music is very difficult to sing,” says Beth Roars, vocal coach and popular “reaction” YouTuber. “Most men don’t naturally have that range, and it requires a huge amount of control. It would require a lot of training for most people to learn to sing most of his music, if it’s even possible.”
Still, it’s the tireless tongue that’s cemented in most of our minds, and it lives on to this day through creative YouTube remixes, endless TikToks, and of course, Vitas himself, who continues to perform. “The tongue technique is a bit of fun,” Roars says (which, understatement of the year). “It makes an interesting tremolo by damping the sound with the tongue, then opening it up in quick succession. Combined with the light-head voice tone, it reminds me of the strange synthesizer sounds they used to convey aliens in 1980s Doctor Who episodes. But in the end, it’s really just silly, adding to the playful nature of the song.”
“Vitas is an exceptional talent, and this viral video is such a cool display of his unique vocal abilities and connection to the audience,” adds professional singer Andy Davis, who’s also a prominent “reaction” YouTuber. “He utilizes a trill-like technique with the front of his tongue in the chorus, which is similar to trills used in different cultures, specifically the zaghrouta in the Middle East and the ululation of North Africa and part of Asia, [sung] during special events to express emotion, usually joy and happiness. While not exactly matching those trill techniques, his trill certainly has that same vibe in this upbeat song.”
If you want to achieve tongue mastery like Vitas, Roars says, “People must learn to sing in their head voice. You can find that feeling by doing a ‘woohoo’ noise. Most people are able to find this register, but as we don’t speak in it, it’s often a little weaker than our speaking range. The next steps would be working on exercises to strengthen this part of the voice, finding ease and control.”
Of equal importance, Davis explains, “Students who want to replicate his technique should start with some tongue-trilling exercises to free up any tension in all parts of the tongue, especially the back, where the movement starts. That freedom of movement is truly apparent in this wonderful Vitas performance.”
Need help? Just close your eyes and lie in bed. Trust me, Vitas himself will appear from the deep recesses of your internet-influenced mind eventually.