Is there any science-fiction character more iconic than Han Solo, the renegade spacefarer, sarcastic smuggler, hero of the rebellion? Solo appears again in theaters this weekend in the prequel Solo: A Star Wars Story, in which audiences will return to the world of Solo — his faithful friend Chewbacca; his less faithful colleague Lando Calrissian; his spacecraft, the Millennium Falcon; and, of course, the droids. Who can forget all of those famous Star Wars characters and moments, like when Han Solo said:
I’m picking up my blaster
Put it on my side
I’m jumpin’ in my Falcon
Wookiee at my side
I’m Han Solo
These are, as we all know, the lyrics to “I’m Han Solo,” an infamous parody of Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo,” which featured in the video game Kinect Star Wars. The track experienced a resurgence earlier this year when Solo buzz started to pick up, with one YouTuber even going so far as to cut the track into the film’s initial trailer.
Kinect Star Wars, which came out in 2012, is from a very specific time in the Star Wars universe, released just months before Lucasfilm announced that it had been purchased by Disney. It represented a major attempt by Microsoft to push the Kinect, a camera that connected to the Xbox 360 and tracked the player’s body, allowing them to control software via gesture and voice, rather than button inputs. Imagine wielding a lightsaber just by waving an imaginary one around, or stomping around Mos Eisley as a rancor … or dancing as Han Solo in a disco-fied rendering of the carbonite facility.
That last option got the most attention, mostly thanks to how goofy it was. The mechanics of the dance game were copied basically whole cloth from the Dance Central series, which gives the player moves step-by-step so that they can feel halfway decent at dancing along to popular music. Users had to perform moves with cute names like the “Chewie Hug,” the “Trash Compactor,” the “Jar Jar Rock,” and “There Is No Try.”
“I’ve heard various reasons as to where that [mode] came from,” Jesse Harlin, who worked on video-game music at Lucasfilm at the time, recalled. “The one that I heard most often was that Microsoft had had success with a Kinect dance game, they had licensed a number of songs for a different dance game, and then that game fell through. They had that license and they had all these songs, and they knew that that gameplay was something that worked well with the Kinect. So somebody at Microsoft made the decision that they were going to add a dance section into the game.”
“It started out originally that they were thinking that they were going to do original music in Huttese,” Kevin Afflack, who produced the music for the dance mode, remembered. Huttese is, no duh, the language spoken by Jabba the Hutt. “Huttese, man. Talk about a pain in the ass. Trying to get vocalists to sing in that language was very hard.” Eventually the all-Huttese idea was abandoned in favor of parody (the song “We No Speak Americano” became “We No Speak Huttese”).
“By the time it reached my desk,” Harlin, the music supervisor, said, “there was nobody saying, ‘Do you think this is a good idea or not?’” Such introspection might have been helpful, given that when the game was released to lackluster reviews, many of them focused on the sacrilegious dance mode.
Some of the already-licensed songs entered the game completely untouched, which would explain why players got to watch Han Solo and Lando Calrissian do a jaunty routine to Bruno Mars’s “Just the Way You Are.” Others received a parody rewrite: “Y.M.C.A.” became “Empire Today,” Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” became “Hologram Girl,” and perhaps most famously, “Ridin’ Solo” became “I’m Han Solo.” Harlin wrote a parody of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” called “Disintegration” that never saw the light of day.
Writers at Microsoft did a first pass on the lyrics, with Harlin doing subsequent passes and rewrites. “I remember initially being really — how do I say this diplomatically? — underwhelmed, I guess,” he said (very carefully). “It didn’t seem like parody to me; it didn’t seem like it went far enough. It just changed the word boogie to wookie, that’s not parody. That’s like find-and-replace in a Word doc.”
The problem with rewriting all of the song lyrics is that the musicians had to balance writing good songs with writing songs that didn’t scare off the original rights holders and keeping the songs realistic to the Star Wars universe. “There’s the whole canon of Star Wars,” Afflack says, “and you have to make sure when you sing about something, it falls in the parameters of the Star Wars universe.”
Even the mode itself — a self-effacing escapist fantasy — had to be couched in canonical fiction. “The whole thing is set up by having C-3P0 say, ‘By the way, we just uncovered this section of the Jedi archives that has been heavily damaged, and the data is massively corrupted, and we’re trying to sort it out. Can you take a look at it and make any sense of it?’” Harlin says, adding that he felt the in-fiction frame was overlooked. “It was never presented as ‘here’s your super-serious Star Wars dance game.’”
That should have been obvious from the jump. As long as you don’t take it too seriously (an attitude some Star Wars fans might want to internalize), “I’m Han Solo” is honestly really good! It’s goofy and fun to see Han and Lando do cheesy dance moves in front of skanking Imperial officers. After the game came out, Afflack recalled going to YouTube and adding up the view counts on Kinect Star Wars videos, ending up with a final tally of more than 25 million. Some of that, however, was due to morbid curiosity. One comment with more than 1,600 upvotes reads, “I can see why kylo ren hates his father and turned to the dark side.” On Afflack’s own SoundCloud account, “I’m Han Solo” has 147,000 plays.
Ranked second in play count is “Empire Today,” which Afflack had actually expected to be the breakout hit. “They said, ‘You can have any of the effects you want, you can have laser sounds, anything from the library.’ Well, I said, ‘If I can have anything I want, can I have Darth Vader sing?’ And they said yes!”
“I had decided we should try and incorporate Darth Vader’s voice into ‘Y.M.C.A.,’” Harlin recalled. “It was going to be a song about the Empire, so why not include a hooky callback to it? If you have a chance to have Darth Vader sing ‘Y.M.C.A.,’ then why not?”
For all of the top-notch production value, however, Kinect Star Wars was a critical flop, and almost immediately, videos of the dance mode began circulating online. The dancing was seen as yet another sign of a once-revered franchise in decline, cashing in however it could (little did fans know that Disney would soon announce plans to put out new mainline and spinoff Star Wars films every year). Gaming site IGN described the dance mode as “what could be the most blatant abuse of the license since the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special,” while GameSpot told readers that “there is nothing that can prepare you for the sight of Han Solo mid-groove, his hips gyrating like an overexuberant schoolboy on prom night to the sounds of Jamiroquai’s ‘Canned Heat’ with the word ‘boogie’ replaced with ‘Wookie.’” Joystiq declared that “the depiction of Han Solo as a dancing dreamboat could very well drive Harrison Ford to commit suicide just so he can roll over in his grave.”
While the mode itself might have rubbed fans the wrong way, it’s impossible to argue that Afflack’s production was anything other than top tier. “I think he did an exceptional job with a questionable task,” Harlin said admiringly. Afflack referred to himself as “the Jar Jar Binks of composers” with a laugh.
But as is so often the case with video games, first impressions are everything. What might have seemed like Star Wars corpse-fucking was really meant as a fun joke for fans to get in on. On top of the outsize reaction to the dance mode, the game’s other qualities were overlooked. Harlin pointed to the orchestral score created by Gordy Haab and Kyle Newmaster: “They wrote an amazing score for that game and it’s brilliant … but it gets zero attention because people just want to point at ‘I’m Han Solo’ instead.” (I am admittedly one of those people.)
About a month after the game came out, Harlin remembered seeing a video on the front page of Reddit that featured stormtroopers dancing. “Like, guys who had dressed up in stormtrooper outfits doing a routine. And all of the comments were about how, like, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,’ ‘This is amazing.’ I just remember griping at lunch about how the same sort of target audience that loves that video seemed, to me, very angry about the dance mode.” Maybe the problem wasn’t parody, but self-parody.
Harlin said that he and his colleagues at Lucasfilm would speak about a “five-year incubation period” when it comes to Star Wars games. Half a decade from launch, flops at the time might have fan bases clamoring for a sequel. It’s also possible that the recent ramp-up in Star Wars production has led to a broader acceptance of creators willing to take risks with the franchise. The pressure to deliver what hard-core fans want has been alleviated to a certain extent.
After all, as Han Solo once sang:
Yeah, I’m feelin’ good tonight
Finally feeling free and it feels so right
Time to do the things I like
Gonna see a Princess, everything’s all right
No Jabba to answer to
Ain’t a fixture in a palace zoo
And since that carbonite’s off me
I’m livin’ life now that I’m free