Ear worms

I get songs stuck in my head all the time. Part of the reason is that I listen to music a lot. It’s background for when I’m working or writing, I listen to music when I’m driving and walking, and so on. Sometimes the ear worm is a song I was last listening to, and sometimes it’s a memory triggered by something else.

There have been a number of studies done on ear worms, how they form, why they persist, and means of getting rid of them. For years, thanks to a suggestion from my friend, Juli-sans-e, the way I have gotten rid of annoying ear worms is to think of the Bumblebee Tuna jingle that was used in commercials in the late 60s through mid-70s. I think this only works for those of us of an age to have heard the commercials a zillion times during formative years. I also know that for at least one other friend, while the Bumble Bee song succeeds in driving out the ear worm, it’s just substituting one annoying ear worm for another. I’m lucky in that the Bumble Bee song will only keep going in my head for a short time after I use it to drive out another. For some ear worms, the only way I can get them out is to actually sing the Bumble Bee song aloud a few times, just thinking about it isn’t enough…

A lot of people don’t consider a song an ear worm unless it is an annoying or hated song. But research shows that how a person feels about the song has no correlation to how likely it is to get stuck on a loop in our imagination. It’s all about music exposure, memory triggers, emotional state, and intensity of attention.

I was thinking about all of this when I got into a discussion/argument with a friend about a song I’d put in a playlist, and the various reasons we both had for why we thought certain songs and bands were either good, or okay, or awful. One of the songs under discussion was “Escape (the Piña Colada Song),” which is a song I have hated for decades.

The song came out as a single shortly after my senior year in high school (I had misremembered this in the conversation, thinking it had been during my senior year), and for some time it was getting constant airplay. I didn’t realize until I did some research for this post, that it wasn’t at the top of the charts for nearly as long as it seemed. It was one of the most requested songs for radio stations, but its sales were awful for a long time, because the title of the song was simply “Escape,” but no one recognized it as that.

Apparently people kept calling radio stations and going to music stores asking for the Piña Colada Song, and even record stores that had the single for “Escape” in stock, told customers it wasn’t available, and kept asking their distributors why they couldn’t order the Piña Colada Song. The record label figured this out early on, but it took nearly three months to convince the musician who wrote and sang the song, Rupert Holmes, to let them release it with the new title “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” As soon as they did, it shot to number one in sales.

(I feel as if I should write a whole sidebar about how most of that story makes little or no sense to anyone under the age of 20, since the era of digital music, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Vimeo is so different than the era of radio music shows and record stores.)

Anyway, I disliked the song so much for a number of reasons: the song tells a story, but it’s a pretty trite and derivative story; the story is really troubling if you stop and think seriously about the relationship dynamics implied; musically it’s by-the-numbers (but then, nearly all pop music is); it doesn’t even attempt to hide its emotional manipulation; and so on.

But another reason I disliked it was the kind of person who would come up to the sound board and request it on those occasions when I was DJ-ing. In my mind, it became irrevocably associated with a particularly soppy kind of girl who thought of me as a weirdo to be avoided at all costs in any other setting, and even worse, always seemed to command the attention of the kind of guys that I got crushes on.

Although, to be fair, I was not really consciously aware of that bit of jealousy on my part at the time, since I was still deeply in denial about my sexual orientation.

Objectively, I know it isn’t worse, from a musicality standpoint, than most of the popular songs that I do like. But it still (to steal my friend, Jared’s, phrase) made me writhe in agony whenever I heard it, or when something would trigger it as an ear worm.

When I pre-ordered the Guardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol. 1 album, the one thing I wasn’t looking forward to on the album was the Piña Colada Song. And yes, I did skip it many of the times that it came up while I was listening. I knew some of the importance that the songs on the mix played in Guardians of the Galaxy before seeing the movie, and I’d been looking forward to the movie so long, that I put up with the one song I hated.

A funny thing happened the first time I re-listened to the album after seeing the movie. I found I no longer hated the song. It’s still trite, derivative, by-the-numbers, and all of that. But the context the movie puts it in—associating it with the dying mother, her relationship with her son, and so forth—has changed the song for me.

It’s weird, and strange, and a little bit silly, but now when I hear the song start playing, the image it evokes is a mother, an ordinary mother, who wants to share some music she loves with her kid before she dies.

And how can you hate that?

2 thoughts on “Ear worms

  1. I get earworms nearly every Tuesday. Sounds odd, but on Tuesday morning I often wake up with an earworm of one of the hymns that was sung at church on Sunday. The way I get rid of them (if I can) is to replace it with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. This usually works within a few hours.

    Several other tunes give me persistent earworms. One is “God Save the Queen” (“America” over there). Another is “Rule, Britannia”. I have had to remove both from any recordings I play on my i{Things}–I miss out on the Last Night of the Proms recordings because of that.

    I hate earworms.

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