Pop Culture

Earworms, ‘earbuddies,’ and ‘tearworms’

I was simply minding my own business at a high-tech shopping mall when singer-songwriter-actor Justin Timberlake’s summer hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling” — a highpoint of the otherwise pedestrian computer-animated feature Trolls — came booming over the sound system. I looked up. Above me on a gigantic LED video screen, the song’s jubilant video played, complete with a cross-section of regular people dancing along with the undeniably talented Timberlake in what appeared to be locations all over the Los Angeles area.

At the time, I was charmed by the song with its popping beat, ascending bridge, and infectious “dance, dance, dance” chorus, not to mention the exuberant clip itself. The evidence was my smile, rhythmic stride, and involuntary butt gyrations while I made my way through the mall. But days later, I was less than pleased the track continued to bounce through my brain, over and over and over. And it wouldn’t go away. I went to sleep with it in fitful fashion and woke up with it, exhausted from tossing and turning all night. It was like being trapped in a loveless relationship with someone you once found attractive and couldn’t dump, because he or she threatened self-harm or refused to sign the divorce papers. I had been victimized by an earworm most sinister.

The first time I heard the phrase “earworm,” I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when the villainous Khan puts a squirming alien larvae into the ear of his captive, Pavel Chekov of the U.S.S. Enterprise, to mentally control and physically torment the unfortunate Starfleet officer. But that was not the worm in question. Instead, the reference was to one of those ridiculously catchy songs that, upon hearing, burrows into your consciousness — and, infuriatingly, won’t stop repeating in your mind unless somehow replaced by something equally memorable but (one hopes) easier to dispel.

This happenstance is sometimes known as Stuck-Song Syndrome, and it’s maddening. In some ways, it’s a significant component of success in the music business. There’s that track in heavy rotation on a radio or streaming station specializing in mainstream pop music; you don’t like it, and you don’t want to hear it, but you can’t escape it, and it plays on and on in your head, even after you turn off the external sound.


I’m sure we all have our own personal earworms — like we all have our own personal hells. And it’s odd that a tune you might initially like could, in short order, become a demonic, hypnotic thing that refuses to leave your thoughts. It’s understandable that Britney Spears’ first big hit, circa 2000, “Oops! … I Did It Again,” is pure evil that invades one’s soul and spirit and leaves the cranium eviscerated. If I never hear “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by the Baha Men again, I will be a happy fellow. But I actually loved Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” the first 100 or so times I heard them. And then … not so much.

All of it makes me feel sorry for those poor souls who, back in the day, had to endure the novelty chart-toppers like 1958’s “Witch Doctor” by David Seville (the fiend behind the often-tortuous Alvin & the Chipmunks records) with its “Ooh-ee-ooh-ah-ah-ting-tang-walla-walla-bang-bang” chorus, and 1959’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” — a singsong ode to the girls on the beach by one Brian Hyland.

To be fair, it does suggest the power of music to generate positive and negative responses in a listener. At its finest, music can uplift and inspire. (Think national anthems.) It can excite and soothe. (Think movie and TV scores.) It can move the soul and break the heart. (Think any number of love songs — or songs that individuals or couples associate with their romantic relationships.)

There’s no denying what can happen when a song is linked to something important or potent in memory. It explains why people hang onto the sounds they adored in their teens or 20s, and don’t bother to embrace newer artists and songs for the rest of their lives. That’s not me. Even though I honor and revere countless compositions I have heard from childhood on, I am, as one might josh, hip to the music of today. I can’t tell you how many times I put “Cowboy Teen,” a recent Band of Horses slice of sonorous, loping Americana, on repeat. The same goes for the thundering, propulsive art-rock explosion “Under the Pressure” from The War on Drugs. Call them “earbuddies” — songs that one can happily hear many times in succession without tiring of them. Like virtually anything by the Beatles … other than “Yellow Submarine.”


I’d be lying if I said there weren’t dozens of recordings that elicit a profound emotional response, like clockwork, when I hear them. Around a year ago, I was driving I-5 with my iPod on shuffle, when “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen came up in the rotation. Tragically, Bowie had died a couple weeks prior, and when the song reached the crescendo with him singing “This is our last dance. This is ourselves … under pressure,” I was a misty-eyed mess. The trigger has remained in place ever since, electing the lump in my throat with every subsequent listen.

Alternately, all it takes for me to find myself grinning like a loon as my nervous system goes into excitement overdrive, while simultaneously longing for my departed youth is Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita,” an epic, careening, euphoric rock ’n’ roll masterpiece wherein he cajoles his sweetheart to blow town with him in his hot rod. And don’t get me started on Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” a gleaming, hopeful up-tempo ballad that makes my tear ducts kick in because it will be forever connected to the most significant love of my life — and the frustration and loss that I felt upon our break-up. Are these earworms? Nay. They are “tearworms.”

So there should be no dispute that music has great power — and with great power comes great responsibility: The responsibility to not drive you crazy. (Like that Fine Young Cannibal’s song “She Drives Me Crazy,” which I have always liked, but which would put me on-edge if played 10 times consecutively.)

I suppose the default earworm scrubber is something like the nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” although an hour of repeating that to yourself to get “The Macarena” or Carly Rae Jepsen’s brain-numbing, YouTube-embedded signature song “Call Me Maybe” out of your head could very well lead to hospitalization. Fortunately, I found a cure for “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” I used a strong dose of “Alright,” the jaunty, piano-driven power-pop single by England’s Supergrass, followed by the dreamy elegance of “Ends of the Earth” by California chamber-rock group Lord Huron, and the relentless hip-hop of Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing.” Timberlake was gone. Unfortunately, I now have a “Wild Thing” problem. I suppose it could be worse. What if that insidious “1-877-KARS-4-KIDS” jingle took hold? My only answer might be an exorcist.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, via, Roku, and YouTube, and on KPFK/Pacifica Radio’s David Feldman Show. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster