Our columnist on the phenomena of catchy tunes that set up residence in the brain, and which songs are the worst offenders, including ''Tainted Love'' and anything by ABBA
Stephen King on songs that stick in your head
A couple of months ago, I woke up at three in the morning, thirsty as hell (probably because I’d donated blood the day before), and shambled into the bathroom for a glass of water. I was 20 percent awake at best. And as I turned on the faucet, I realized I was singing this: ”They say a man should always dress/For the job he wants/So why’m I dressed up like a pirate/In this restaurant?”
Dear God, I thought, I’ve been infected by an earworm.
My friend the Longhair says that’s what you call songs that burrow into your head and commence chewing your brains. The dreaded earworm can turn even a great song into something you’d run from, screaming at the top of your lungs. If only you could. The most recent example from my own life is Tim Armstrong’s ska-dance rave-up ”Into Action.” Great song…at least until you realize that for the last hour you’ve been droning ”We take the 43 bus, we got no plans/The girl in the miniskirt, her name’s Suzanne” under your breath.
Your Uncle Stevie got curious about earworms, so he went to retrocrush.com and also to the pop-savviest people on earth: those who post at — ahem — my website. I asked them to e-mail their most dreaded earworms, and boy, did I get deluged. Yet a clear winner emerged: ”Macarena,” by Los Del Rio. One of my respondents, Natalie Shannon, summed it up best: ”I hate this song even when I’m drunk.”
Other Latin-tinged songs that scored high on the this-makes-me-crazy meter: ”Coconut,” by Harry Nilsson; ”Who Let the Dogs Out,” by Baha Men; ”Mambo No. 5,” by Lou Bega. Concerning this last one, I want to share that my wife once informed me that she would disembowel me with her sharpest Ginsu knife if I played the extended version one more time. I waited until she was running errands, then played it…not once but several times. Because that’s the thing with earworms: They attract even as they repulse. Put another way, you know you’ll only spread that rash by scratching it, but you can’t help it. Which explains why even now I feel this insane urge to play ”Mr. Roboto” by Styx…one…more…time.
Other songs that were mentioned time and time again include ”Daniel,” by Elton John (”It could be classed as torture because of the nausea-inducing qualities and lingering psychological effects,” James Hanna commented on my website); ”I Kissed a Girl,” by Katy Perry; ”Thong Song,” by Sisqó; and ”Mickey,” by Toni Basil — in which we find what may be the archetypal earworm chorus: ”Oh Mickey, you’re so fine/You’re so fine you blow my mind/Hey Mickey! Hey Mickey!”
Speaking of Mickey, several people mentioned the supremely annoying Disneyland earworm ”It’s a Small World.” And Evelyn S. admitted that the Sesame Street theme song (”Sunny day/Sweepin’ the clouds away”) had been stuck in her head for over 30 years. Get this woman a doctor! Another correspondent quoted one of a thousand childish but amusing parodies of the Barney theme song: ”I love you, you love me/Let’s nail Barney to a tree/A shot rang out and Barney hit the floor/No more purple dinosaur.”
It’s good, it’s fun, but will it get rid of the earworm? Unlikely. The earworm is an always-near-worm. This is why I wish I’d never again have to hear or even think about ”Relax,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ”Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” by Rupert Holmes, or ”MMMBop,” by Hanson. Yet the respondents to my earworm query seem to agree (with a certain make-it-stop desperation) that ABBA has created more earworms than anyone else. The one most frequently mentioned was the dreadful (and dreadfully addictive) ”Take a Chance on Me,” where satanic male voices in the background chant ”Take a chance, take a ch-ch-chance” until you’re willing to promise anyone anything if it will only cease echoing in your head.
For me, the worst earworm ever is ”Tainted Love,” by Soft Cell. Even writing it here guarantees that I will spend the next month muttering ”Don’t touch me PLEEZE/I cannot stand the way you TEEEEEEEEEZE!” People will give me strange looks, but will I be able to stop? Noooooooo! Yet there may be a cure. Remember the ”Free Credit Report” song? I learned how to play it on the guitar. Key of D seems to work best for me. And so, even if I can’t get it out of my head, I can inflict it on others. Because misery loves company.