La Musica: Earworms

“Earworms” are songs, or snatches of songs, or jingles, or various assorted other musical blats, that compulsively sound in one’s head, beyond any effort to control or expell them.

They’ve been around for a while: Mark Twain wrote about the things in his story “A Literary Nightmare.” Marketing professor James Kellaris, who has studied earworms professionally, describes them as “ex-cit[ing] an abnormal reaction in the brain.” He says that while 98% of all human beings are afflicted with earworms at one time or another, they tend to linger longer in, and irritate more, women.

Generally earworms are perceived as negative creatures—persistent irritants like “Wooly Bully,” or the “Frito Bandito” TV commercial, both of which have, over the years, recurrently haunted me unto near-weeping.

But sometimes there sound in my head earworms to which I don’t begrudge at all the cranial space. Now is one of those times. There are three particular tunes ringing now and again in my brainpan, and I like all three of them. None of them have any real serious application in my life right now, which is a good thing, because one is a sort of curse, the second is a “here’s-the-door” invite, and the third is a yearner. But I like listening to them all the same. If you don’t mind possibly contracting yourself these songs as earworms, follow on along after the “furthur.”

I can’t remember how or when I first came across this woman and this song. I do recall that the last time I had a rager of a fever, I got kind of giddy, as I often do in fever, as a line from this tune—”I don’t want to feel like this”—kept pinging around my head.

Now, Imogen Heap is a practiced and crafty composer of electronic music. So I was not all surprised when I found on YouTube someone who had run “The Walk” backwards, and discovered that although the song as released was saying “go away,” played backwards you can actually hear her saying “come closer, come closer.” One of the people who commented there wrote “you know a song is incredible when it sounds just as amazing backwards. imogen could sing in gibberish and still entrance the lot of us.”

That backwards version is here. Below is “The Walk” as presented on Speak for Yourself.

This next song is proof that people can get better with age. Because Stevie Nicks never performed this song so well or so powerfully when she was but a young’un.

Coy for many years as to what the tune was about, Nicks finally, decades on, admitted what had been obvious all along: “Gold Dust Woman” was born of her twin obsessions of the time—cocaine and Lindsay Buckingham.

I would not really want to be the person this version is directed towards, because it rings like a curse. The little widening of the eyes on the last “you can’t see me now” gives it away. Powerful mojo needed to deflect this one.

This last one has melted my heart for 15 years. When it was released, my (male) reggae musician friends were scandalized, outraged, believing Annie Lennox had desecrated a sacred relic of the sainted Bob Marley. I loved the thing, but I had to learn to keep quiet about it, make sure it wasn’t playing, when they came around.

What they didn’t want to hear is that I thought Lennox moved more completely through the complex of emotions in this tale of a person who has waited three years for a lover. And that she made a perfect musical decision by pulling back the sound, for her voice to sound clear, into the coda, with the last line—”but your love is my relief”—communicating complete assuredness that she is deeply anchored in a right love, even if it hasn’t yet been fully realized. Fine, fine stuff.

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4 Responses to “La Musica: Earworms”


  1. 1 possum August 23, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Funny you should bring up this particular topic. We in the neighborhood call this phenomenon “brain sludge” knowing no better. That there is a real term should come as no surprise but my guess is we will keep our terminology as we all know the meaning of that one.

    Most often in Possum Valley brain sludge is not so much a mesmerizing tune as one that simply will not go away. Often refers to some country tune we can’t get out of our collective minds. :)

    • 2 bluenred August 23, 2010 at 10:17 am

      Possum, “brain sludge” is just a great term. I can think of all sorts of things in my cranium that are “brain sludge”—pockets of useless information, nauseating images, Bad Thoughts about people. Thank you for introducing me to it. ; )

      • 3 possum August 24, 2010 at 4:33 am

        Brain sludge indeed is all encompassing. There is so much detritus in most of our brains we need a program to reset and clean the files. Defrag for the brain would be a real wonder. Maybe one day science will find a way. Until then we have to deal with our sludge and our earworms and get along with life.


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