Why you can’t get ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ out of your head

The door guy was doing Bowie.

“Heeeere am I sitting in my tin can…” he sang. Then he stopped and fiddled with the door’s dog door, muttering a bit, then taking back the song. “Ground control to Major Tom, your circuit’s dead…”

I was home, trapped in the Barn with my dogs. Like everyone who comes to the house, the door guy wondered if my dogs bite. And, as always, I assured him that, yes, they do. It’s a lie. My dogs cower in fear, but they like the killer rep. They would get face tattoos if I’d let them.

“Tell my wife I love her very much….” sang the door guy as he nail-gunned the left jamb into place.

He sang snippets of the song in no particular order (“and the papers want to know whose shirts you wear….”) for 90 minutes. And, of course, by now the song was stuck in my head as well. I petted Annie while softly singing, “Though I’ve passed one hundred thousand miles…”

Suddenly, after an hour and a half, the door guy switched to singing, “Oh, please, say to me, you’ll let me be your man…”

No. I was not going to let that song get stuck in my head. If I’m going to get a Beatles song stuck in my head it’s bigod going to be “Yellow Submarine.” I stuck to singing Bowie and the door guy was hammering both the door and me with the Beatles song. Happily, he was almost finished with the job. I asked him about Bowie.

“It was the last song I heard in my truck,” he explained. He had no reason for “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” other than he must have heard it recently.

A few days later the door guy came back to install another door (I’m a sucker for new doors) and he was singing Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” from the soundtrack to “Top Gun.” He was the singingest guy I’ve ever hired, and his case of earworm was as bad as anyone’s I’ve ever encountered.

Earworms, or, for those few who don’t like the idea of slithery creature crawling into their brains, stuck-song syndrome, afflicts almost everyone to different degrees. It can be embarrassing. A few years ago when a certain commercial was airing overly frequently, I found myself singing “Viva Viagra” to the tune of “Viva Las Vegas” in the drug aisle at my local grocery store. Advertisers have won when they can get people singing their jingle in public.

Song psychologists (I missed my calling; nobody told me that was a thing) have been studying stuck-song syndrome for years, and they have a lot of data. One song-psych in London has compiled a list of more than 2,000 songs, but she’s also noted that there’s no noticeable consensus over the most common ditties that get lodged in people’s brains to spin out a constant loop.

Why do certain songs morph into earworms? Nobody knows, but it helps for the song to be catchy. What makes a song catchy? No one knows.

Different people have different triggers. There was a time in the distant past when I had Philip Glass’ “Koyaanisqatsi” droning through the dark recesses of my mind for extended periods. I’m not sure why. Surely I didn’t hear it on KIIS-FM.

While, regrettably, I’m no song psychologist, I know earworm trouble when I hear it, and if you’ve ever heard just about any Lady Gaga song, though mostly “Bad Romance,” you, too,  know what catchy is. After you blunder into the song you’ll likely want to slam a plumber’s helper into the side of your head (where one of your ears is). Ditto, or even more so, Kylie Minogue’s not-ironically-titled “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” which combines easy-to-remember lyrics (“la la la la la la la”) with a bouncy synth beat that pile-drives the song right into your brain, where you have to lure it out with repeated playings of Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is)” or Disney’s “It’s a Small World.”

Finally, another earworm trigger is just stumbling onto a certain tune’s title in print, as you’ve just done if you’re the rare reader who sticks with a story to its end. Song titles like Queen’s “We Are the Champions” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” or the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” or Disney’s “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).”

Drop me a line sometime and tell me which one you got stuck with after reading this. But wait until you’re less angry with me for causing it.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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