A bad case of earworms

They call them “earworms.” I’m not sure who “they” are but I kind of wish they’d called it something else because “earworm” is not an image I like to carry around with me because it’s almost impossible to get rid of.

They call them “earworms.” I’m not sure who “they” are but I kind of wish they’d called it something else because “earworm” is not an image I like to carry around with me because it’s almost impossible to get rid of.

And that’s the point. Aside from being an image that makes you go “Ewwww,” an audio earworm is just that — a snippet, ditty or even an entire song that is so catchy you can’t get rid of it. Knocking around in your head like an unwanted juke box you can’t unplug. You’re waiting in line at the grocery store, minding your own business, when suddenly the song Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini pops into your head, and the person in front of you is looking at you funny and you realize you’re inadvertently humming that stupid little song right out loud.

Or you’ve finally made it to bed after a long and busy day, and you are so tired you can barely keep your eyes open but when your head hits the pillow all of a sudden that guy is singing “WHO LET THE DOGS OUT? WHO WHO WHO-WHO!” in full stereo sound at full volume in your exhausted brain. And of course you’re now so wide awake that you toss and turn while the song plays in your head ad nauseum until you have to get up for a glass of warm milk and a Tylenol.

I’m thinking about all of this on account of this week the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester released the results of a year-long study that revealed what they call the “10 catchiest songs of all time.” The study involved over 12,000 random people who voluntarily played a sort of game on the Internet involving 1,000 hit songs from the past 70 years. Participants had to identify as many songs clips as possible in three minutes, listen to two different song clips and identify which was the catchiest, and on like that for several other earworm identifying tasks.

So, what’s on the list, I can hear you asking. Good question — and a brave one too, on account of you are putting yourself at risk of catching one or two of their earworms for the rest of the day, and possibly longer. How about Mambo Number 5 by Lou Bega? (That came in at No. 2 of the catchiest songs list). Or No. 13 — It’s Now or Never by Elvis. (I can hear you singing it out loud already.) No. 16 — Karma Chameleon by Culture Club (remember — or trying to forget — Boy George?). Everybody now, sing: “Karma karma karma karma karma chameleeeoooonnn.”

The list included: Eye of the Tiger (Survivor), Beat It (Michael Jackson), Poker Face (Lady Gaga) and, of course, SOS by ABBA. There had to be at least one ABBA tune, right?

It’s pretty clear from the results of this study, however, that it was conducted in merry old England, and the participants were most probably on the youngish end of the demographic. Most of the “catchiest” songs on the list were fairly current imminently catchy pop songs.

Their list didn’t even scratch the baby boomer surface of … “We had joy we had fun, we had seasons in the sun. …” Or: “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Lisa …” and “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. …” An earworm about swallowing a fly — what could be worse?!

At the risk of doing real physical damage to any reader who unwittingly latches onto one of these earworms, how about: Achy Breaky Heart or Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight? Or a couple that won’t seem to leave me alone: Bad Moon Arisin’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Born to Be Wild by Steppenwolf. Or, as Dave Barry once wrote: “When reading this article DO NOT think about Copacabana.”

Commercial jingles and TV/movie theme songs are particularly lethal. Remember: “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz — oh what a relief it is!” (Alka-Seltzer); the theme from (“… where everybody knows your naaame …”), and M.A.S.H. (Suicide is Painless). Or Friends (“… I’ll be there for yooooouuu …”) or the positively deadly Jeopardy game show ‘think music’ — tick, tock, tick tock, dum dee dum dummm. …

If you’re not completely exhausted from the invading earworms at this point, I’ve got a couple of doozies for you. I asked the Better Half which tunes got caught in her brain when she least expected it. I give you: It’s a Small World After All. YIKES! Or the TV series theme song: Green Acres. BAM!

And we haven’t even scratched the surface of kids songs and cartoon music and novelty tunes — I’m just not that mean.

So back to the research list of catchiest tunes. There was only one Canadian song on the list (and it wasn’t Sweet City Woman by the Stampeders). Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, where old Randy attempts to sing and stutters instead. And the No. 1 catchiest tune according to the MSIM? Wannabe by the Spice Girls. If you don’t recognize the title, you’ll certainly know the earworm lyric hook: “Tell me what you want, what you really really want. …”

We are in dangerous territory here, whenever one steps tentatively into the quicksand world of earworms, we do so at our peril. The worst earworms can attack when you least expect it.

So I apologize profusely by mentioning that you might have to have YMCA by the Village People in your head whenever you really don’t want it to be. Can’t you just hear it? “YYYYY MMMM CCCCC AAAAA.”

Just try really hard not to do the arm motions. You may be in public at the time.

Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.

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