Right now, Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” is lodged firmly in my brain pan, echoing through the chamber, as if the band is performing just for me and my consciousness.
“Times are hard, you’re afraid to pay the fee/So you find yourself somebody who can do the job for free/When you need a bit of lovin’ ‘cause your man is out of town/That’s the time to get me runnin’, and you know I’ll be around/I’m a fool to do your dirty work, oh yeah...,” every week I crank out one of these columns, that song pops up as I wonder what in the hell I’m going to write about.
Believe it or not, these things require some thought, they just don’t fall out of the sky like a dead duck; I have to aim my shotgun at something and hope for fresh-killed foul. And when the birds are off somewhere else, Steely Dan invades my space with that haunting tune, reminding me there’s a column to be written.
The Germans call them “earwigs,” songs that come out of nowhere and get lodged in our head. We all have them, for better or worse. A couple of weeks ago, I was chewing the fat with Karl and happened to mention that Ricky Martin had announced his coming out of the closet (news akin to finding out that Obama is black). Of course, Martin is the perpetrator of one of the most insidious earwigs ever — “La Vida Loca.”
By the end of the day, Karl was threatening me with a fatal beating by claw hammer. “La Vida Loca” had done its evil deed and landed in his brain with all its toxic humability.
We talked about what qualifies a tune as a true earwig and agreed that it can’t be something currently overplayed in a commercial. Both Karl and I are old enough to remember when advertisers hired jingle writers and refused to feature pop music in an ad. That was back in the day when ad agencies were run by the likes of the fellows in “Mad Men” — WASP-ish neurotics with a penchant for martinis and an uncontrollable urge for philandering. Guys too uptight to see the value of using the Lovin’ Spoonful to sell toothpaste.
The reason we agreed to that caveat is that, by virtue of sheer repetition, the song is given an unfair advantage over the genuine earwig. We may carry the tune around in our heads but that’s just because we’ve been pummeled with it. Our suspicion is, once an advertiser begins a new campaign and decides on a new song, the previous song will lose its power as an earwig and fail to ruin someone’s day.
However, while no song featured in a commercial (and popular on its own in a previous life) can be an earwig, that doesn’t mean commercial jingles can’t be an earwig. In fact, as I type this, “Sometimes you feel like a nut/Sometimes you don’t? Almond Joy’s got nuts/Mounds don’t,” is playing in my head (despite an excellent Broken Social Scene song on my pod at the same time), beating on the interior of my skull with the persistence of a hungry woodpecker.
If I recall correctly, it wasn’t until the early 1980s when advertisers were hip enough to discover the value of pop music in selling soap. I imagine a whole generation of jingle writers were put out to pasture (or, like Barry Manilow, moved onto assault the public in more poisonous ways). Honestly, I can’t think of a single standout jingle from the last 30 years.
Yet, I recall (and still hear in my head) the childhood verse, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should/No filter, no flavor/Just some toilet paper!” and that thing will pop up like the zit that appears the day my picture will be taken.
Thus, the stand-alone jingle is a perfectly acceptable earwig. Likewise, the TV show theme song also qualifies. In fact, several theme songs became bona fide hits (“Friends” and “M*A*S*H” themes among others). Too often, the themes from “The Monkeys” or “The Banana Splits” will stick themselves into a random moment like the pebble that appears in my shoe the moment I’m trying to get to Gate B33 before my flight leaves.
Movies (and their songs) have a similar effect, I think. The Rocky franchise in particular — who hasn’t been annoyed almost to the point of driving a gun barrel against the soft palate by “Eye of the Tiger” or “Gonna’ Fly Now”? Similarly, the theme from The Pink Panther, silly as it is, will make an appearance at the most inopportune moments (usually when I’m attempting to be sneaky about something). Henry Mancini was, by my estimate, the master of the earwig and I can’t count how many times “Moon River,” “The Peter Gunn Theme,” or the “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet” have been nailed into my skull.
Themes and jingles aside, it is the pop song that, for whatever reason, manages to take hold and not let go. The earwig repertoire is as unique as a fingerprint, each of holding our own dirty little secret, unique to each and every one of us. A burden we, as humans, all share.
And none of us can explain why a particular song has the ability to appear out of nowhere and lodge itself in our minds.
For instance, I have no explanation why “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd will, all off sudden and without warning, appear out of the thin air between my ears. “Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars/Oak tree you’re in my way/There’s too much coke and too much smoke/Look what’s going on inside you/Ooooh that smell/Can’t you smell that smell/Ooooh that smell/The smell of death surrounds you ...,” is not announcing my misbehavior nor am I dealing with anything redolent at that moment. The only thing foul-smelling at that moment is the damn song that I can’t shake off.
I was never a big Skynyrd fan (believing that the plane crash was karmic retribution for foisting “Free Bird” on us) and “That Smell” is just gawdawful. Nonetheless, inexplicably and irritatingly, the tune walks in and takes up residence with wretched regularity and I am powerless. It’s the skunk that the neighbor’s idiot dog went after.
Less annoying (and, alas, less frequent) is “(Remember) Walking in the Sand” by the Shangri-Las. For whatever reason, that beautiful little ditty will show up and I’ll find myself humming the haunting tune, silently singing, “(Remember) Walking in the sand/(Remember) Walking hand in hand/(Remember) The night was so exciting/(Remember) Smile was so inviting/(Remember) Then, he touched my cheek/(Remember) With his fingertips/Softly, softly, we’d meet with our lips...,” and smiling.
Confession time: I do know where “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne comes from and it invariably arises the moment I see a really good-looking older woman. Which means, as the eternal adolescent, any attractive woman around my age. No sooner am I telling myself, “Oh my, she is HAWT!” then “Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on/She’s all I want and I’ve waited for so long/Stacy, can’t you see you’re just not the girl for me/I know it might be wrong but I’m in love with Stacy’s mom ...,” starts playing in my head and, to tell the truth, I don’t mind it at all, it’s completely apropos.
Similarly, an ill-behaved child in a restaurant or the grocery store will bring on the Ramone’s “Beat on the Brat” as surely as the little monster’s parents will find the outburst as a sign of their little darling’s creativity or glimmering soul or some such nonsense.
It’s the rest of us being assailed by the screaming, the grabbing of things and throwing them, the general chaos created by the ill-mannered little wretch who are singing, “Beat on the brat, beat on the brat/Beat on the brat with a baseball bat/Oh yeah, oh yeah, uh-oh/What can you do? What can you do?/With a brat like that always on your back/What can you do? (lose?).”
Honestly, you know you’re singing it, too, and then carrying it around for the rest of the day.
And that’s the joy — and curse — of the earwig. No matter how we attempt to distract ourselves, put on other music, watch TV, dive into our work, the song just won’t go away. It lingers, persistent palaver, a nudging little nudnik that takes evil pleasure in knowing that we are annoyed to the point of distraction.
Ooooh, that smell. Beat on the brat with a baseball bat.