Sticking In The Head


At any given moment about two-fifths of all people have their brains under attack by some catchy tune, which gets called an “earworm” because somebody thought that was a catchy term and didn’t think we had enough trouble. Another two-fifths of all people are slapping their hands over their ears and yelling frantically to “shut up shut up shut UP” because some poor child of the 80s was remembering how the thing about a Bon-Bon is it’s almost always gone-gone.

But there’s a deeper question, which is, why should there be earworms at all? What advantage can there possibly be to having your brain occasionally taken over by a melody you like in about the same way you despise it? When did earworms get to be a thing? It seems like they have to have been invented sometime after music was invented, since it’d be kind of funny to have a song caught in your head if you haven’t got songs. It’d also seem like they’d have to come from after heads were invented, for similar reasons.

Maybe they didn’t, though. Maybe people were getting what they thought was music caught in their heads when it turned out it was just the wailing of people bemoaning their horrible, pre-music-based existence. But that seems like it would explain why earworms are popular in this music-enabled era, though, since we surely don’t want to have our existential dread hammering itself into our heads outside of its appropriate designated times, such as birthdays or the anniversaries of when we graduated college or Sunday nights. It’s surely better to be one of the roughly one out of four hundred people who are at any moment kind of remembering commercials from the late 70s are trying to work out whether it was “Nair for short shorts” or “Nair for short skirts” without giving up and just going to YouTube to see it because they can’t face the moment of admitting they were looking for Nair commercials from the 70s on YouTube.

I’m gratified to learn there’s serious study of earworms since it’s got to be a difficult subject to study. I have it hard enough because I can barely finish telling people that I have an advanced degree in mathematics without their telling me that it was their worst subject in school, and they could never understand what it was about, and occasionally their algebra teacher would transform into a 150-foot-tall giant and rampage through the city, requiring the national guard to deploy an security corridor of directrix and latus rectums to subdue. (They’re things used for making parabolas in case you live in an area where parabolas don’t grow naturally.) My spouse, the philosopher, has a similar problem with people describing how their philosophy courses inevitably resulted in their being captured by headless Zombie Jeremy Benthams and locked in a dank warehouse forced to press Joy Buttons all day and night. It’s pretty annoying to get.

So I figure someone studying earworms is probably bombarded day and night by people who think they’re being sociable or even interested but who really just want to know who to hold responsible for “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago”. (It was Doctor West’s Medicine Show And Junk Band.) I’m wrong, of course, because investigation has revealed that I’m the only person born after 1970 who’s even heard of this exemplar of psychedelic jug-band music, and probably Doctor West doesn’t even hear the song haunting his dreams anymore, though he’s probably wondering why if that Purple People-Eater Song can get sucked up into the vortex of Monster Based Songs I Guess Are On Theme For Halloween why his didn’t. Maybe it’s too much eggplant. And anyway the song fails as an earworm because I’ve dug the song up and played it for people and all they have lingering after the experience is a diminished opinion of me.

Here’s something else I wonder: an earworm is based on the idea of something getting stuck in the head and not getting back out again. But thanks to the Internet we can’t pay attention to anything long enough to have it stuck in our heads anymore. Does this mean the earworm is going to vanish as people can’t remember the entire phrase “itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie something or other” before staring at their phones for a status update? Or are we going to have to preserve the earworm by turning it over to technology and leaving our MP3 players to pick some catchy but infuriating snippet of song and play it to itself? I don’t know, but I’m sure the answer will be obvious after I’ve forgotten the question.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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