ONLY NOISE: A Can Of Earworms

It is unrelenting. Circular. A clump of chains I can’t untangle. It is like that hedge maze in The Shining: I cannot get out of it. I am trapped. Trapped in the ceaseless sax solo from George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.”

But why? Why is it stuck in my head, in a perpetual loop? What part of my frontal lobe – a locality so full of things that are not George Michael songs – has weakened in just the right moment for that slithery little woodwind to slip in? And furthermore: where did I even hear it in the first place?

Maybe it was playing in my corner bodega…or was that the new Drake single? Was it the jingle gracing my gynecologist’s waiting room? Oh, no, that was “Nasty Boys” by Janet Jackson (true story). Surely I didn’t hear it at a party…or did I?

I am mystified by how these things happen; I don’t listen to George Michael (RIP) – not yet anyway. And while it has been on my to-do list to “go through a George Michael phase,” I didn’t even know “Careless Whisper” was called “Careless Whisper” until I Googled “George Michael saxophone song.” So why is my mind rapt with it today?

For several hours the saxophone has persisted. It will not stop. To make matters worse, I can’t quit vocalizing the sax riff: “Byeah-duh-duh-duh-Byyyeaaaaah-duhduhduh- Byeah-duh-duh-duh-Byyyeaaaaah-duhduhduh” again and again and again. This is partly why I do not listen to classical music – the irresistible urge to sing instrumentation. It was because of people like me that phrases such as “shoobie doobie doo-bop” and “walla-walla-bing-bang” were created: so that we wouldn’t ruin the guitar solo by trying to sing it. But “Carless Whisper” hath no “walla-walla-bing-bang” to shout; therefore “Byeah-duh-duh-duh-Byyyeaaaaah-duhduhduh” we must!

George Michael’s wriggling little number is not the first unwelcome “earworm” to invade my brain – an earworm being defined as “a tune or part of a song that repeats in one’s mind” by Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone,” U2’s “It’s A Beautiful Day,” and that godforsaken new Ed Sheeran single have all been contaminants in my auditory cortex. Perhaps the strangest occurrence of these spontaneous earworms (never prompted by actually hearing the song in question) was the handful of times I woke up with Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” stuck in my head, after not hearing it for over a decade. That ditty probably hasn’t even been on the radio in that long. Had I dreamt about Shania? Had I dreamt about my friend’s mother, with whom I used to sing Shania songs? Did I feel super, extra, especially “Like a woman” upon waking, as the lyrics might suggest? No.

I’ve tried to battle these unwanted worms with “good” music; music the culturati and I regard as “worthwhile,” “respectable,” or “hip.” This cannon of “good” music can be repurposed as an arsenal of songs to deflect the “superficial” melodies holding our heads hostage – right?

Not necessarily. In an attempt to quell the writhing earworms, I’ve tried everything; all the songs I claim to love. “Still Ill” by The Smiths; “Outdoor Miner” by Wire; “Palimpsest” by Smog. I sing them on repeat, feeling every word leave my lips; begging them to stay a little while longer. But they just crumble. None of these songs – songs I deem “better” than the earworms – none of them have the fortitude to withstand the stab of “Careless Whisper’s” sax solo. One sticky note from that hunk of curved brass, and all “interesting” music buckles at the knees. Go ahead. Play “Careless Whisper” and Suicide’s “Girl” back to back. Let’s see which one gets stuck in your head.

Is this the triumph of practice over theory? Beauty over brains? Wonderbread over homemade, whole wheat? Is the micro-phenomenon of a song getting lodged in your brain representative of some greater, macro-phenomenon, like the longevity of certain music? Aren’t there scientists who can answer my questions?

Of course there are! Particularly the researchers whose study title will not get stuck in your head: Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery. Catchy! All jokes aside, I was pleased to discover that this question had plagued others to the same degree: why do certain songs get stuck in our heads, while others float away? What makes an earworm an earworm?

According to the study’s lead author Kelly Jakubowski, the “findings show that you can, to some extent, predict which songs are going to get stuck in people’s heads based on the song’s melodic content.” A few factors are at play when a song is riding a relentless carousel ‘round your brain. Familiar melodies, simple lyrics, and upbeat tempos are often proponents of the earworm, as well as unexpected intervals or jumps in the song, which add jusssssst enough interest – but not too much!

Given this formula and over 3,000 survey responses, the study compiled a list of the nine most earwormish songs out there:

  1. Lady Gaga: “Bad Romance”
  2.  Kylie Minogue: “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”
  3.  Journey: “Don’t Stop Believin’”
  4.  Gotye: “Somebody That I Used to Know”
  5.  Maroon 5: “Moves Like Jagger”
  6.  Katy Perry: “California Gurls”
  7.  Queen: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
  8.  Lady Gaga: “Alejandro”
  9.  Lady Gaga: “Poker Face”

While “Careless Whisper” didn’t make the cut, Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is too perfect for words; so perfect, that I can’t help but wonder if Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis had earworms in mind while penning the lyrics… Regardless I’ve learned two things from this list:

  • Lady Gaga is Queen of the Earworm, given her monopoly.
  • I loathe almost 80% of this list – Kylie and Queen being the exceptions.

I’ve also learned that you can’t control what songs get stuck in your head, no matter how hard you try. So you might as well relax, sit back, and enjoy the…

“Byeah-duh-duh-duh-Byyyeaaaaah-duhduhduh- Byeah-duh-duh-duh-Byyyeaaaaah-duhduhduh.”

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