Earworms: Menacing Annoyance or Happy Accidents?
Every living human that has ever been exposed to music has experienced an earworm. They are sticky and catchy, nauseating and joyful, frustrating and harmless, and officially defined by Oxford Dictionaries as:
“A catchy song or tune that runs continually through a person’s mind.”
Earworms have been on the forefront of my mind since I woke up recently with “All I Really Want” by Alanis Morissette playing on an endless loop there. This song is a great example of something that I really do not mind having on repeat. It’s an amazing song, from a classic album created by one of the best voices of the 90s. In short, this is a pleasant earworm. A quick reminder of a song deeply loved, and for whatever reason neurons aligned and now you get to enjoy it.
However, through the absolutely scientific approach of “I have a feeling,” this is not the normal case for earworms in our lives. By happenstance, after pulling up “All I Really Want” for this article, I was presented with a stellar example of another earworm, one that, in my opinion, is mostly lukewarm; I don’t hate it, but I’m not particularly excited by it either.
“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind is a song that can only cycle in my brain a couple of times before I start to feel insane. This song also has some visual memories for me, specifically Third Eye Blind’s performance of it at the 1997 Billboard Music Awards on Fox (some dear soul recorded this moment and has uploaded it to the internet for posterity – you can view it here if you want). I’d say this pretty effectively covers the middle ground of earworms from my perspective.
Here is where things get complicated. There are an inordinate number of songs that have been published that are very good at being earworms, but very bad at sounding good in my opinion. I can admit that in some cases this is wholly on me. Several of the songs in this category are quite popular, but I would never listen to them on purpose. Nevertheless, they end up relentlessly repeating in my mind from time to time.
One of the worst offenders of recent memory is “Gucci Gang” by Lil’ Pump. I’m not even going to link to this, none of you deserve that. Gucci Gang offers nothing to me other than a headache and a dose of misanthropy about the state of the world. That said, I do really enjoy this version; that’s right, the entirety of the song delivered in just 39 seconds.
While not frustrating on any level in comparison to the previous track, the impetus for me to finally write this down, and arriving in my head bright and early this morning we have “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes. At first it feels like an alright song to start your day with. It’s upbeat, bright and fast moving, but then you’re shout-singing “if you like making love at midnight” in your head for the 6th time and frankly that’s enough.
Which really begs the question: when is enough, enough with earworms? I am really quite interested in what songs get stuck in other people’s minds. We’re all unique in life experiences and memories, and should definitely all have different ideas on which catchy tunes make you feel like an elective lobotomy doesn’t sound so bad. Also, if you’re interested in more of the science behind earworms, check out Dr Kelly Jakubowski’s work.
Share your most loved, most frustrating, or most humdrum earworms with me in the comments.
Bonus: I put together this list on Spotify of all the earworms I could think of this afternoon. They are ranked from most enjoyable to least enjoyable for me. I hope you find this to be … enjoyable?