This week’s question comes from The A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky:
What song is always stuck in your head?
Back in the more innocent days of the early 2010s, I hosted a weekly PBS television program that used the theme from The Third Man as its intro music. You probably know it: pa-da da da-da, da-da, pa-da da da-da, da-da, etc. As anyone who has spent time staring at a teleprompter can tell you, downtime in a TV studio is arduous. You feel like you are in a full-body cast and time is elapsing at about a quarter speed. So one day, I started humming the Third Man theme to the feigned amusement of my co-host and our very professional crew. At first it was kind of a dumb joke, but then it became such a habit that even I started to get annoyed. It has now been stuck in my head for six years. It has become a kind of reflex for me to hum or whistle the Third Man theme whenever I’m doing something really tedious, like changing diapers or putting away dishes.
I tweeted something to this effect a couple of months ago, but I pretty much have the opening riff to Lifetime’s “Rodeo Clown” stuck in my head at all times. I’m not sure why; while I like Lifetime, I’m not a superfan or anything, and I came to them pretty late. Still, Dan Yemin’s lead is versatile enough that it pops into my head constantly. To me, it sounds both pensive and resolute, the perfect score for thinking about something, but not wallowing about it. Considering I’m perpetually stuck in my head, it makes sense that my brain pulls a melody that says, “Lighten up. And get on with it.”
What? You thought I didn’t have a theater-kid answer for this? “On My Own” from Les Miserables has been stuck in my head for somewhere around 15-plus years. Blame it on the childhood singing lessons I took, at which I never excelled. Éponine’s big ballad about unrequited love for Marius was the cool song to learn once you’d graduated from Annie tracks. I never had the voice to actually conquer it, but goddamn, I’ve tried in the shower. In high school, it fueled my overly dramatic lovesickness. Now? It’s honestly just a part of me. Whenever it rains, I hear the lyric, “In the rain, the pavement shines like silver.” After that I’ll be screeching it for hours.
I almost always have a song stuck in my head, but like dreams, they fade so quickly that it’s tough to look back and pluck one out of the ether. One earworm that does stick out as the most persistent and annoying is the main theme from the Nintendo 64 game Banjo-Kazooie. I don’t even need to think about the game for it to show up. It’s been popping in uninvited and sowing its cartoonish discord on my innocent thought process since I was 8 years old. Deep down, I do love its nonsense—the digitized banjos and kazoos, the fleeting solos from random piccolos and marimbas, Grant Kirkhope’s ever-present oompah bassline—but it’s the exact opposite of a song you’d actually want stuck in your head. It is, however, a pretty perfect encapsulation of the frantic, circus-like hellscape that is my brain, which is maybe why it has parasitically clung to me for nearly two decades now.
Over a year ago, I wrote a story about HBO’s then-upcoming series Big Little Lies, and I threw in a joke about how Fleetwood Mac should record a new version of the song “Little Lies” and use it as the theme. Basically, the whole idea was that you could just change the line from “Tell me sweet little lies” to “Tell me Big Little Lies,” and it would work. It’s not an especially hilarious concept, but it somehow got jammed so deep in my brain that ever since I posted that story I’ve been unable to hear or read or think of the name of that show without thinking, “Tell me lies, tell me Big Little Lies.” It’s maddening, and the fact that Big Little Lies (tell me lies, tell me, tell me lies) might get a second season means I may never escape this hell I created for myself.
I never noticed how often I have They Might Be Giants’ “Don’t Let’s Start” in my head until my sister stopped to ask me why I sing “No one in the world ever gets what they want / And that is beautiful” so much. I think those very lyrics should answer her question, as they are so simple and catchy, like the melody, but also truthful and, well, beautiful for me. And yet, while the chorus is all protestations, these seemingly stirring lyrics just happened to work with the melody, which is what inspired their inclusion. It’s kind of a whole lot of nothing, but so damn catchy that it’s always in my head.
As part of some idle mental exercise I indulged in years ago on songs I’d put in a film, none were as certain as Leadbelly’s “John Hardy.” The bouncy, three-chord intro and fatalistic story of a convicted man ready to face death for his crimes felt like a good fit for a protagonist walking toward their final confrontation. Having none of the skill, talent, or interest in actually making a movie, the idea quickly burned away, but “John Hardy” was the residue left behind. Now nearly every time I go for a walk, I kind of half-bounce my first few steps in time with the mournful guitar riff rattling around in my head. Invariably, the rest of the song follows suit, culminating with, “And now I’m ready to die, poor boy / And now I’m ready to die.” Which is a disproportionately heavy refrain when, more often than not, I’m just walking to Walgreens to grab some Advil. And maybe some honey-mustard pretzel pieces if I’m feeling sassy.
As with most people, the question is probably more accurately “What song is always stuck in your head this week?” Either out of spite or some inscrutable payola, my inner DJ is always spinning some hot track dredged up from the recesses of my memory—and people, let me tell you about my friend Josh Modell, whom I have sat next to for going on five years now and whom I love like a brother, yet who has a habit of randomly half-singing earworms like Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” But over the past year, all of these are just brief bursts of radio overlap cutting into the constant, crystal-clear signal of Sesame Street‘s “Letter Of The Day.” We’re extra mindful of our kids’ TV time—no more than an hour a weekend right now—so I only actually hear Elmo’s jaunty little exertions to “Jump up, get down / Come dance with Elmo / We’re moving our body to the ABCs” once per week, and seeing the way my two little girls’ faces light up, it’s impossible to hate it. That said, this fucking puppet is always chirping away inside my head, from the moment my eyes snap open to the time they wearily shut—the voices still demanding, “What’s the letter? What’s the letter? What’s the letter, what’s the letter, WHAT’S THE LETTER?” though I no longer have the strength to answer.
Like Matt, I am guaranteed to have a song stuck in my head at all times of the day, to the point where sometimes outgoing earworms blend with incoming ones to form some fantastic/awful mashups. But I feel lucky in that about 80 percent of my earworms are courtesy of Chaka Khan—because, full disclosure, I listen to a lot of Chaka Khan. The most frequent offender seems to be “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me,” the title track from her 1981 hit album, and there’s really no questioning why. From the funk of that sidling bass line and those horn runs to Chaka’s outro riffing, there’s no shortage of harmonies and rhythms to get caught up in. So one day it’ll be the “Whaaat cha’ gonna do for me, boyyy” on repeat, and another, it’ll be that spectacular bridge modulation. Honestly, I’ve done much worse in the way of earworms, so I never mind when Chaka shows up.
Variants on Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird” that have run endlessly through my head over the years, in moments serious, frightening, sorrowful, and, occasionally, intimate: “I’m like a bird, I only fly away.” (The original.) “I’m like a verb, I describe actions you can do.” “I’m like a berg, I’m made of floating ice.” “I’m like the verge, I’m a thing people stand upon.” “I’m like a blurb, I briefly describe the book.” “I’m like the Serge, hero of the Chrono Cross.” “I’m like a word, I endlessly repeat.” (This one is slightly meta.) And the granddaddy of them all, two lines of nonsense song I have repeated, endlessly, in my head, despite the fact that I have only even seen the movie it describes once in my life: “I’m like The ’Burbs, I only star Tom Hanks. Plus the guy from Laugh-In, yeah, plus the guy from Laugh-In.” The shame of it all is that it’s a pretty song. Someone kill me, please.
While I too suffer the neurotic mania of a perpetually changing list of songs stuck in my head, there are nonetheless some old reliables that continually return to my brain in certain situations. The most notable, and the one that has occupied central position for quite some time now, happens every time I get into the shower, for some damn reason: Louis Prima’s “Shake Hands With Santa Claus.” The reason, I suspect, has to do with my addiction to creating new lyrics for songs. Any tune with an appropriately structured verse is open season for me to replace the words with whatever damn fool thing pops into my head, like the world’s stupidest improv game. And by this metric, “Shake Hands With Santa Claus” is a juggernaut of truly mythic proportions. I heard the song a thousand times from some holiday compilation my brother made a decade ago, but never really learned the lyrics, making it prime real estate for building my own idiotic narrative into the structure. It’s essentially a series of questions and statements that repeatedly push Louis back to the assertion that, well, then, you’d best put ’er there with jolly old Saint Nick. “If you like potatoes, some vine-ripe tomatoes / Shake hands with Santa Claus” is just one of the hundreds of meaningless couplets I’ve assembled over the years. I can’t stop. Send help.
For close to a decade, I had the hook from the Ying Yang Twins’ “Say I Yi Yi” stuck in my head, and while this was infuriating, it’s at least a solid track that I enjoyed enough upon its original release in 2002. That earworm faded over the course of years, replaced by a blissful silence that I only appreciated gradually, the way you notice sleep patterns shifting or trees growing. In its place, however, has come a hex pulled from the darkest recesses of my mind: Rusted Root’s faux-hemian hit “Send Me On My Way,” a jaunty, flute-laden sojourn into mid-’90s Fruitopia-style hippie profundity. There are few things on the planet for which I can conjure more bile than the image of scarf-wearing troubadours bouncing merrily through fields full of pilfered Native American iconography and jauntily exhorting nonsense, feel-good phrases like “bubbilisay, bubilly-saw” or “I would like to hold my little hand,” which is somehow not a euphemism for masturbation. And yet, despite this intense, almost violent revulsion to the track, its lyrics, its melodies, and the twirling mountain spirits who created it, several mornings per week that is the exact image and sequence of words coursing through my brain, at least until I can replace it with something, anything else. This earworm, too, may fade over time, but I fear what my subconscious might replace it with.