3.02: Earworms suck

I don’t want to talk about work or technology or bettering oneself this week. I want to talk about the thing that was stuck in my head for the majority of the past week, which was the following phrase: “We can’t find the books; they must be in La Jolla.”

This is from a sample used in the song “If Not Now, Whenever” by The Books, a wonderful experimental folk duo that was moderately popular in hipster circles in the early-mid 2000s. The song itself is fine: pretty repetitive, hypnotic melody, a little boring but also fun for a deep cut. There’s a seemingly random string of voices throughout the song – they don’t tell a story from what I can tell, but the end of one phrase seems to lead into the next. This sample comes up randomly in the middle in the song, after a few old women asking about “the books.” It’s unclear whether this is a meta-reference to the band or a commentary on how people consume media.

I don’t know what else it could be, but the phrase just sounds good to me. It sits in the rhythm really nicely, and it’s spoken sardonically and cool. It’s not some deeply catchy, intricately-produced melody manufactured to optimize profits; it’s a passing sample likely meant as a joke.

I have a horrible habit of getting small parts of songs stuck in my head for long periods of time, and then having those songs incessantly distract me.

I just discovered Poppy, whose whole vibe and backstory is insane, and essentially put out a metal record. There are parts of her new album I Disagree which are certainly catchy, but metal rarely captures my attention these days. I’ve had various parts of the lead track “Concrete” stuck in my head for weeks (something about that “sugar on my teeth” line), and recently became obsessed with the refrain from “Fill The Crown.”

Back-to-back with Poppy has been “You Make My Dreams” by Hall & Oates. Talk about a topic jump: from being ironically buried alive in concrete, I move to a simple love confession. I’ve had this track on-and-off stuck in my head since 2016, when it was on seemingly infinite repeat during my best man’s own bachelor party. There’s no need to explain what makes this song an ear worm: it’s probably stuck in your head too from time to time. One scientist calls it a “cognitive itch,” which seems appropriate for this particular track.

Cognitive itching seems overall appropriate for the whole sensation inspiring this post. Instead of scratching a technical itch or a career itch, I find myself regularly and incessantly scratching sonic itches in my brain. Sometimes this comes to the detriment of one of those other itches; I think my inability to parse Swift documentation and make sense of inexplicable bugs partly relates to my brain being distracted by those melodies and samples that won’t leave.

Some of these songs are incredibly catchy and have fair right to be called earworms, but others get stuck in my head for seemingly no reason whatsoever. I said the word “cocoon” this morning, and now I have “Cocoon” by Björk stuck in my head. It’s not even that catchy of a song; her vocal melodies are usually more meandering than crisp. (This was not written for effect – this specifically happened at 8am this morning, Monday, March 2nd.) I’ve been following the pianist/MC Jason Charles Beck (aka Chilly Gonzales) for a while, and I’ve had his track “I Am Europe” stuck in my head recently. It’s got a somewhat catchy piano riff, but vocally there’s nothing to hang onto whatsoever: there’s a weird string of spoken-word metaphors in the middle of the song that ring quite hollow (“I’m a dog shit ashtray”; “I’m a toilet with no seat, flushing tradition down”), but the piano line, undercut with pitched moans, just works for me. I haven’t listened to this song or album in years, and there’s no reason for me to either –– it’s not that great. But it’s in my head.

Sometimes the nature of these earworms are subtle and specific. Another song I frequently get stuck in my head is “You With Air” by Young Magic, which is fun and catchy as hell. It shares a vocal line almost identically with Purity Ring’s “Grandloves”, but I rarely if ever think about that song. I have no idea why, despite having the Young Magic version of the line in my head frequently. The context of the backing rhythm and overall vibe seem to matter.

It feels narcissistic to get one of my own songs stuck in my head, but I have a little guitar and bass line loop stuck in my head. I guess one could call that part of the songwriting process, but this particular loop has been in and out of my head since 2009. I guess you could call it catchy once the vocal melody is attached, but the guitar loop is kind of nothing on its own. I can’t explain it, which I guess is the whole thesis of this post. (I guess it’s also weird to link to said song in my own newsletter. Shameless.)

I wonder what some earworms tell me about my inner demons. I have a strong distaste for horror movies –– inexplicable gore and chaos make me very uncomfortable –– but sometimes I’ll scratch an aural itch that would be terrifying to most people. Mr. Bungle, a bizarre, fun and sometimes confusing band from the 90s recently announced a small set of reunion shows in California which prompted me to revisit some of their music. I recently got stuck in my head a song of theirs called “Carry Stress In The Jaw”, a song about grinding one’s teeth during sleep, specifically the jittery saxophone line that begins the song and a bit of the following verse. Any rational person would likely find this song terrifying, between the jarring tonal & genre shifts, the chainsaw-sounding guitars, and Mike Patton’s meandering recitation of an Edgar Allan Poe excerpt which builds to a high-pitched wail. But I find it a fascinating and ultimately entertaining listen, and I apparently get fixated on parts of it from time to time. What does this say about me? The aforementioned Poppy tracks are unconventional and dark but ultimately (as her moniker states –– hey!) poppy and interesting social commentary; “Carry Stress In The Jaw” is chaotic, strange, and sometimes gross without a clear point. Is this a reflection that my mind is in a proverbial gutter? Is this a manifestation of the actual teeth-grinding I do while I sleep? Am I a glutton for aural punishment?

More likely I just am fascinated by sound, but I can’t help but worry about my sanity with a track like this.

I made a playlist of these songs that I keep pretty up-to-date, for those interested; there’s a lot rattling around in my brain. Check it out here.


This was fun to write. I didn’t really learn anything for have any nuggets of value to share, but it was nice to shove stressful or effortful things aside and just ramble about songs I like. We should be doing more stuff like this.

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