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a treatise on musical mass hysteria
earworms and what to do about them
For the first time in a long-time, I am infected by an adult earworm. It doesn’t happen all that often — being a dad subjects your brain to an interminable barrage of songs about elephants and the color blue. And so it’s almost reassuring when you find a grown-up song stuck in your head.
In dad-hood, I’d forgotten the precise behaviors of an adult earworm in the same way that I’ve forgotten the precise tones of that thing teenagers used to call heartbreak (do they actually still call it heartbreak?). I don’t remember it, but I know heartbreak sucks. I know it’s awful and that I used to hate it more than anything, but I don’t remember its behaviors. I don’t remember exactly how it moved in my head. Earworms are similar, they put up camps in your subconscious and from there, they storm your train of thought.
One of the problems with earworms — and admittedly the most trivial and humbling of problems — is that they don’t give a damn what you think of yourself. Here is your brain, running over the same lyrics again and again and that might be totally contrary to the ideas you have of yourself. You might consider yourself the kind of sophisticated person who likes good music. You might go around thinking things like well actually sir, something stirs in me when I hear Coltrane and Duke Ellington playing My Little Brown Book. And yeah, that’s the good stuff right there. You listen to that song and you feel all of it. You actually feel something. But the songs that make you feel something rarely get stuck in your head.1
An adult earworm like the one I’m describing is the kind of thing you think of when somebody uses the phrase song of the summer — the song of the summer always has an earworm in it somewhere. We just go in for that kind of thing in the summer, action movies and earworms. In the summer of 2012, the movie was The Dark Knight Rises and the earworm went like this: hey I just met you and this is crazy. In 2016, the movie was the second Guardians of the Galaxy and the earworm went: despaaaaaahh-cito. This summer, I’m infected by an earworm called What It Is by an artist named Doechii. That first bar, man. No wonder they call it the hook. I listened to it twice on my run yesterday. I caught myself humming it in the supermarket last week.
Now, I believe I picked the earworm up on the radio. They’re playing What It Is about six times an hour on KISS fm, which I’ve been listening to lately.2 So, this is probably my fault. As if, subconsciously, I wanted the earworm.3 Because that’s KISS fm’s thing. It’s a top-40 station. They play earworms. If there’s an arena where the true song of the summer proves itself, that arena exists on KISS fm. And after all, that’s all we mean when we talk about the song of the summer. It’s an earworm that has infected the population so widely, it’s become a form of musical mass hysteria.4
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Maybe ‘mass hysteria’ is a little bit of an overblown term. But earworms truly are hell when you’re writing the kind of things I write here. Because writing an essay is basically just wandering around in your own head. And in order to do this well, the things in your own head have to be predominantly things you choose to put there. You sort of go around like Socrates in the marketplace — interrogating your own ideas. It doesn’t help matters if, in the corner of the marketplace, somebody is singing the Hot Dog song from Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse. (Also, don’t click that link). That’s a kid earworm, one of the worst I’ve encountered. Adult earworms (a term I’ve invented for this piece) aren’t much better. About 80 percent of my brain is occupied with the words you’re reading right now. But whenever I catch myself between sentences, between thoughts, there’s Doechii, off in the corner, chanting what it is ho what’s up every good girl needs a little thug every block boy needs a little love if you put it down imma pick it up-up-up.
The long and short of it is that earworms can be a little bit of a curse. And we know that they can be a little bit of a curse. Have you ever walked up behind somebody and whispered, in tune, do you like Pina coladas? If not, you have to do it sometime. It’s a hilarious social prank. They’ll have that song stuck in their head for at least an hour.5
I read somewhere that we get earworms because our brain is trying to complete them. They say that the best way to rid yourself of an ear worm is to listen to the song over-and-over again. So here I am, it’s the middle of the night, I have a dozen tabs open on the computer. A few of them are researching things for a pitch I want to write. Another is this piece of fiction in the New Yorker that I’m obsessed with and I keep re-reading it, trying to figure out exactly how it works. A few of them are Substacks, one is wikipedia. And one of them is the YouTube video for a song entitled What it Is, which I’m listening to over-and-over-again.
a post-script that’s more significant than a footnote but which I don’t have room to expand upon: I’ve been thinking about how we get earworms even before we can talk. They’re a primal phenomenon. The reason I know this is that my kid has gone around humming the opening vocals to Thunderstruck for the past few months. Ever since it came up on YouTube or something. Here’s the audio of him humming it as I was bouncing him on my chest, trying to put him to sleep. idk what it says that my son’s subconscious is singing AC/DC. draw your own conclusions.
This sounds weird but I like listening to KISS FM because we live in LA and that radio station is like a thing out here on the coast. And I like feeling as though I’m part of the community. To me there’s something nice and grounding about being on the 405, listening to KISS FM and knowing you’re part of a large group of people who are listening to the same thing. And because listening to music in a car colors your interaction with the world, it seems like I’m part of a common experience. Occasionally, I like that feeling.
I doubt there are as many earworms transmitted over radio as there used to be. I think a lot of them are now transmitted via TikTok, which is basically engineered to transmit them. But obviously, I’m not on TikTok.
I didn’t invent this little prank. I think I saw a comic do a bit on it. I’m just using it here.