Every parent has a secret weapon. A trump card in a bag of tricks to whip out when their baby completely loses the plot.
A dummy is a sure-fire method for some. A special toy or blanket works wonders for others, but for my husband and I, it’s a song. Not a nursery rhyme or even something cool like a Nick Cave ballad, but a jacked up Italian tune from the ’70s about a child with poor bladder control. Mi Scappa La Pipi – translated loosely – I really need to wee.
If you’ve spent any time in Melbourne’s inner west you’re probably already familiar with this song. You might have heard it blaring from my phone as I rush the pram around the footy oval. Or you’d have noticed me singing it in the aisles of Coles, desperately improvising Italian lyrics while I haul shopping into the trolley, ‘Supermarket Sweep’-style. You most certainly would have felt the bass reverberating through our car windows as we hightail it home after another failed attempt to go out for dinner with our baby.
Mi Scappa La Pipi is the only guaranteed way to put an emotional meltdown on ice. The last resort when nothing else will work, and the unlikely soundtrack to our first year as parents.
How were we to know it would go this far? It started as a bit of joke, really. Short of calling him Giuseppe, we thought playing Italian songs on YouTube was a cute way for our son Joseph to connect with his Italian heritage. There was the one about the crocodile, another about a boy who thinks he’s Tarzan, but Mi Scappa La Pipi was the one that triggered a profound response in him.
It is to Joseph what Rosebud was to Citizen Kane.
I don’t know if words can aptly convey this song’s hypnotic quality. It seems to speak to babies on a unique, subhuman frequency, in much in the same way only dogs can hear a really high pitch. Its effect is immediate, paralysing.
For starters, there’s the curious narrative. A boy (pictured as a cartoon bear in the video) thwarts his dad’s attempts to have fun – at the movies, at a wedding, at a soccer game – by needing to wee at the most inconvenient moments. The chorus, “mi scappa la pipi, papa”, concludes with the disturbing line: “non ne posso proprio più io la faccio qui”. In English, “I can’t hold it anymore, I’ll have to go right here”. And he does.
Bizarrely, a child, straining just outside the reaches of his vocal ability, sings this bit of the song. The register is so impossibly high it makes you feel light headed when you sing along.
Then there’s the man who wrote it. Pippo Franco – the Springsteen of Italian kids music. Live footage shows him lanky, wearing a shirt and tie, bounding giddily around the stage like a defective pinball. In another performance, he weaves in and out of an all-children choir, ad-libbing extra “bada-bada-bops” and “shooby-dooby-doos” for maximum impact. Picture Freddy Mercury at the Live Aid concert but in the form of a bald, middle-aged dude singing about his urgent toilet habits.
Then there’s the music itself. It’s busy, with layers of instrumentation and a frantic organ in the background that sounds like it’s gone rogue and decided to play a different song altogether. Could it be trumpets or some other horn that plays little farty notes in the chorus?
No song is complete without a gong and this one’s got a massive one at the start. It’s ceremonious in a way because when Joseph hears it he stands to instant attention. When that gong sounds, tears cease, silence descends, and peace is restored. But our boy is wily and he anticipates the end of the song just as quickly as he recognises the start. The trick here is to never let the song end. NEVER. LET. THE. SONG. END. With a finger poised steadily over the repeat button we’ve got the exact moment to strike (after the last “pipi” but just before the final “papa“) down to a fine art.
The YouTube video had been watched more than 25 million times and I reckon we account for about 24 million of those views. We’ve picked up all the musical intricacies over time, like the subtle key change in the second last chorus and the complex arrangement of handclaps in the verses. We’ve tried to keep things fresh by finding different versions, like an orchestral version and one sung completely a capella. We’ve even listened to an aggressive techno remix just for the variety.
We no longer estimate the length of car trips in minutes or kilometres. Mi Scappa La Pipi has become our new standard unit of measurement – “We’ll be home in about 11 more Mi Scappas…”
There was, of course, also the real life version. The singing, dancing, Mi Scappa La Pipi bear picked up at the Italian shop on Lygon Street. Over and over (and over) again that little bear gyrated across our coffee table bringing endless hours of delight to our son and endless days of agitation to us. He met a cruel, but completely accidental fate in the end when my husband stepped on him. The top half of his leg pierced through his trousers and his singing of mi scappa slowed into a distorted, drunken drawl. The stuff of nightmares.
As the crippled little bear hobbled around our house, his singing barely discernable, we couldn’t help but think he symbolised our sleep-deprived state as parents – broken and a little bit deranged.
But like so many times during our first year of parenthood, denial soon gave way to acceptance. On a drive home from the country one afternoon, with Mi Scappa La Pipi typically playing on repeat, we no longer listened with weary resignation – to the contrary – we almost enjoyed it. Whether it be a blessing or a curse, this song, this fantastically weird song about needing to wee, was a member of our family.
It was our captor, but also our saviour. The song we’d lamented on all those long trips home, but the one we’d turn to at 3am when no amount of shooshing, cuddles or baby panadol had cut the mustard.
We were its hostage, but it was our hero.
If you’re still looking for that secret weapon to soothe your baby, maybe you’d like to give Mi Scappa La Pipi a whirl? I dare you.