ONLY NOISE: The Women of Country Music Offer Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Loretta Lynn’s alcohol-soaked pity party for herself in “Somebody, Somewhere” echoes quite a lot of our newly solo Saturday nights. Dolly Parton reminds us all that wealth is a state of being, rather than the (declining) value of our bank accounts. Lucinda Williams asks the simple, but potentially life-saving question, “Are You Alright?“; Ashley Monroe comforts us, singing “someday you’ll be fine, sweet as wine” on “From Time To Time“; and Kasey Chambers gets to the core of being “Happy” regardless of the circumstances. Really, if any musical genre was perfectly suited to get us through heartbreak, loneliness, and financial hardship, it’s country. And the women of country, in particular, have plenty of lessons to impart on coping with life in chaotic times – particularly those we’re collectively facing as COVID-19 rages on.

Loretta Lynn was a ground-breaker. In her 60-year career, she was brave enough to defy strictly conservative commercial radio stations to sing about abortion, rejecting drunken advances, getting on birth control, and older women desiring younger men (and pursuing them for sexual gratification). In short, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind – even when it came to doing housework. “Well goodbye tubs and clothes lines, goodbye pots and pans/I’m a gonna take a Greyhound bus as further as I can/I ain’t a gonna wash no windows and I ain’t a gonna scrub no floors/And when you realize I’m gone, I’m a gonna hear you roar,” she sang on “Hey Loretta,” from 1973 LP Love Is The Foundation. While I don’t recommend taking public transportation, her words may help you find your voice if you feel like you’ve been stuck at home with a mop and a stack of dishes thanks to housemates who have no inclination to help with domestic necessities.

I live by Dolly Parton’s saying, “The higher the hair, the closer to God,” which is only one of the many examples of her deep wisdom. Right now, many families in America and around the world are struggling to survive on their savings, government rations (if we’re fortunate enough to qualify) and the generosity of community organizations. It’s a good time to recall Dolly’s ode to her resourceful mother, “Coat of Many Colors.” The story behind the song is true – as a child, Dolly was taunted by her schoolmates for wearing a coat made from scraps of fabric that clearly indicated a lack of wealth in her family, but illustrated the richness of their bond: “I told ’em of the love/My momma sewed in every stitch/And I told ’em all the story/Momma told me while she sewed/And how my coat of many colors/Was worth more than all their clothes.” With many dusting off their old sewing machines to make masks for healthcare workers and neighbors alike, love becomes the thread that holds everything together.

Granted, Shania Twain was singing a love song to her man with 1999 single “You’ve Got A Way,” but some of the lyrics could equally apply to your best friendships. “You got a way with words/You get me smiling even when it hurts,” she sings. “There’s no way to measure what your love is worth/I can’t believe the way you get through to me.” When it feels like the world is in chaos, sometimes you just need understanding, and it goes both ways. We all need to be there for each other.

No one knows that better than Lucinda Williams, who just released her 14th studio album, Good Souls Better Angels. Williams knows all about hard living, sacrifice, and scraping for silver linings, and on her 2009 LP West, she opens with a simple check in: “Are you alright?/I looked around me and you were gone/Are you alright?/I feel like there must be something wrong/Are you alright?/Cos it seems like you disappeared/Are you alright?/Cos I been feeling a little scared.” If you’re like me, maybe you’ve found that the simple act of asking, as Williams did, “Are You Alright?” has even more importance now than it ever has. Every phone call to a friend, Zoom meeting with coworkers, and interaction with those on the frontline begins with this simple act of kindness.

Though “having someone to hug and kiss you” may not be an ideal way to observe social distancing, admitting that you’re not alright might enable people around you to offer you resources and advice, even if it’s just on social media. Though we must remain physically distant, we can still be socially connected.

It usually takes a lot of grief, wailing, and wondering if you can handle it before you see signs of your own granite-hard resolve to live, breathe, and become who you’re capable of being. That suffering and strengthening is illustrated beautifully in Australian country singer Kasey Chambers’ “Stronger,” from 2004 LP Wayward Angel. “I thought it was good, I thought it was fine/I thought it was just a matter of time/The sun would shine/I held my breath, I covered my eyes/Thought I was just clearing the skies,” she sings, capturing that period of waiting and watching we’re all feeling right now. Though nothing makes sense to her, she finds power within (“I’m a little bit braver/I’m a little bit wilder/I can stand a bit closer to the light”), proving that the old cliche is true – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Ashley Monroe’s bittersweet tune “From Time to Time” is another reminder that everything that threatens to break us open and bleed us of all the sweetness of who we are passes. We are loved, even when we feel horribly alone. I think of the lines “Someday you’ll be fine/Sweet as wine/It’s alright to remember” when reminiscing about going out for a meal, or visiting a record store. Those little things that nourish our soul that we miss so much? Let’s remember them and know this current level of restriction isn’t forever.

These resilient women can all attest to the power of music and creativity to make sense of pain, injustice and grief. Music is redemptive, it connects us like an invisible web that reflects the light after rainfall. Even if your singing voice isn’t going to win over record executives any time soon, you’re still capable of singing along.

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.”