My Turn: Earworms: When you’re caught and squirming on a hook

Tim Sullivan/StockSnap

Tim Sullivan/StockSnap Tim Sullivan/StockSnap


Published: 10-15-2023 9:43 PM

Do you believe in life after love? Don’t answer that. It doesn’t matter.

The thing is, I drove away from a local supermarket recently with a bouquet of cilantro, some organic ginger root and a massive earworm.

I picked it up (the worm, that is) in the liquor section, midway through Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.” A woman at a display of mid-shelf bourbon was transported by the song on the sound system and began belting out its decaying refrain ... “after love, after love, after love.” She turned, did a little sidestep, and beamed at me.

“Don’t mind me,” she said, cradling her bourbon. And then she was gone, leaving me with her lousy earworm. I heard her again several aisles over, and all the way home. I still hear her. “After love … after love,” decaying forever in my inner ear.

But that’s the thing with earworms. You don’t choose them. They choose you. By all accounts, they are classified as Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI), a phenomenon coined as “öhrwurm” a century ago in Germany, where such things go to be coined. The öhrwurm appears as a literary device in stories by, among others, Mark Twain and E.B.White; and as fodder for serious essays by the likes of Oliver Sacks.

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An IMI can, we learn, can have both pleasant and noxious associations. Still, they are usually just slimy enough to give worms a bad name.

Certain decades, the ’80s and ’90s for instance (and certain venues, including malls and big box stores), qualify as earworm super-spreaders. You can find lists of them on the internet if you need to bolster your earworm repertoire.

Everybody has a pet IMI peeve. Mine is Tears for Fears’ 1985 single “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Then, too, there’s that Toto anthem. Lyricist David Plaich reportedly had never been to Africa when he blessed the rains down there, and he now confesses that he wasn’t sure that he had Africa in mind when he penned the immortal line “Nothing that a hundred men or Mars could ever do.”

Or something like that. Lyrics mutate when you are waiting for your snow tires to be installed or picking through a bin of two-for-one pork tenderloins at Big Y.

This is one of primary characteristics of the öhrwurm — certain lyrics are so insipid and meaningless that they clumsily mutate as they are passed from ear to ear. “Now whatever, pain and pleasure, happy ever after never, everybody wants to rule the world.”

The second hallmark of an IMI is a hook, as in the kind of hook on which a worm squirms at the end of fishing line. (“Haken” in German, if it matters.) Hooks are sharp, hard to remove, and brutally simple. You are never going to find a simple hook in a Chopin nocturn or a Frank Zappa instrumental (with the exception of “Peaches en Regalia”). Or in a Coltrane or a Jerry Garcia solo. They are too, well, complex.

This may be one reason that hooks, starting in the early 2010s, began finding a home not just in lyrics, but in simple sounds — the crudest of which is the “glottal stop.” The glottal stop has a sound that is something between the croak of a frog, the cluck of hen and a burp. It is nearly impossible to replicate in simple type.

I don’t know where it began, other than as a feature of certain ancient and Indigenous languages. Perhaps it has always been with us. But there it is in 2011 in One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful;” in 2012 in Katy Perry’s “Roar;” in Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” in 2013; and in the American Authors’ “Best Day of My Life” in 2014 — not to mention in countless bestselling IMIs in between and since.

It would be unfair to end this without pointing to at least one example of an exquisite earworm with glottal stops that work perfectly and poetically. Its lyrics are too simple to mutate, but who would want to? “Blitzkrieg Bop” was released by The Ramones in 1976, propelled in part by the Harold Ramis movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” It is meant to be enjoyed, abused and played again, over a bourbon or on the way home from the supermarket, if necessary:

“Hey ho, let’s go!”

(after love ... after love ... after love)

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield.