The Science of Earworms (Lady Gaga, We're Looking at You)

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You didn’t plan to have Katy Perry stuck in your head all day. It just happened, and now you’re a prisoner in your own treacherous, pop music–blasting mind. Never fear: We have answers. A study published today in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts [PDF] identifies the features that transform certain songs into earworms—and even offers tips for their extraction.

Scientists call this experience involuntary musical imagery, or INMI. Previous studies have suggested certain traits [PDF] that make a song ideal INMI fodder. First, it’s familiar; songs we’ve heard many times before are the ones most likely to jam in our brains. Second, it’s sing-able. So far, that’s really all we know. But researchers remain on the case.

In 2012, researchers in Finland and the UK conducted simultaneous surveys inviting their compatriots to complain about the songs that haunted them the most. The latter survey, called The Earwormery, amassed responses from 5989 disgruntled Brits. It was conducted by researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London, four of whom are co-authors on the current study.

For the current study, they pulled the responses of 3000 of those respondents and analyzed them for trends. They then identified 100 of the worst offenders and sorted them based on 83 different musical parameters, including length, melody, pitch range, and commercial success.

The songs most commonly found wiggling around in British brains had quite a few things in common. They were typically pretty fast pop songs, and their melodies were fairly generic, yet each one had a little something, like an unusual tonal interval or a repetition, that set it apart from others on the charts and made it stickier.

The top 9 list of wormiest tracks revealed a couple of other trends. See if you can spot them here:

1. “Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga

2. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” Kylie Minogue

3. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey

4. “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Gotye

5. “Moves Like Jagger,” Maroon 5

6. “California Gurls,” Katy Perry

7. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen

8. “Alejandro,” Lady Gaga

9. “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga

Only one of those artists is even British—and three of them are Lady Gaga.

These results are specific to UK survey respondents, as are the musical qualities that inspired them. It's probable that stickiness is cultural; what's sticky in Mozambique may glide in one Japanese person's ear and out the other, and vice versa.

The researchers say their research could be beneficial for those in music-related industries. "You can, to some extent, predict which songs are going to get stuck in people's heads based on the song's melodic content,” lead author Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, said in a statement. “This could help aspiring songwriters or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards.”

Still, we’re not completely helpless. The researchers offer three tips for extracting an earworm. First, just give in. Listening to the song the entire way through can help get it out of your head. Second, find a musical antidote. The British survey respondents listed “God Save the Queen” as the best way to shake an earworm, but we’d like to recommend James Brown’s "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” (Trust us. It works.)

Finally, stop worrying about it. Like a little splinter or an errant eyelash, that Lady Gaga will likely work its way out all on its own.

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

7 Songs That Aren't Quite as Romantic as They Sound

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by John Moore

There are thousands of classic love songs in the world. And then there are those songs that seem romantic—like, say, Dolly Parton's most famous breakup song, "I Will Always Love You," which skyrocketed as a top wedding choice after Whitney Houston's heartbreaking version was released in 1992—but when you really listen to the lyrics, they don't convey exactly the message you might have thought. Here are seven of them.

1. "More Than Words" // Extreme

Don't be fooled by the spare acoustics and subtle, soulful harmonies—the bros from Extreme didn't pen a love ballad, they penned a longing ballad. In 1991, just after the song had topped the Billboard charts, guitarist and singer-songwriter Nuno Bettencourt talked about how people too often think that saying "I love you" can work as a Band-Aid in relationships. "People use it so easily and so lightly that they think you can say that and fix everything, or you can say that and everything’s OK," he said. Basically, it’s about how actions speak louder than words.

2. "God Only Knows" // The Beach Boys

As lushly orchestrated as this song is, the lyrics are short on words but long on mixed messages. Brian Wilson’s proclamations that life wouldn’t be worth living without the song’s intended listener sound like the stuff of planning futures together and walking down the aisle, but only if you can get past the first line: "I may not always love you."

3. "Leaving on a Jet Plane" // John Denver

What sounds like a sweet, heartfelt farewell before a fairly long trip turns bittersweet when the singer admits that "so many times I’ve let you down / So many times I’ve played around," perhaps on one of these long trips. But then he promises to bring home a wedding ring? It seems hard to look forward to an engagement when you don’t know if your beloved will be faithful while he’s out of town.

4. "There She Goes" // The LA's

From the time The La’s released "There She Goes" in 1988, rumors of it being an ode to heroin abounded. Lead guitarist John Byrne, who co-wrote the song, denied it, saying "It’s just a love song about a girl that you like but never talk to," which, beyond the lyrics "There she blows … Pulsing through my vein," could be believed. The song later made a huge comeback in 1999 when Sixpence None the Richer covered it, introducing a whole new generation to the blurred lines between states of infatuation and intoxication.

5. "Here Comes Your Man" // The Pixies

You’d expect a band as discordant as the Pixies to have some pretty screwed up opinions on romance, but what’s admirable is that one of their most accessible songs is really a pretty twisted little tale. "Here Comes Your Man," replete with twanging riffage and cutesy backing purrs, is actually "about winos and hobos traveling on the trains, who die in the California Earthquake," as frontman Black Francis told NME in 1989. The repetitive chorus of "here comes your man" might sound sweet and moderately chivalrous, but then verses like "Big shake on the boxcar moving / Big shake to the land that's falling down / Is a wind makes a palm stop blowing / A big, big stone fall and break my crown" don’t exactly hold up as romantic mood-setters.

6. "Got to Get You Into My Life" // The Beatles

"It’s actually an ode to pot," Paul McCartney said of this 1966 song, though it could easily fool any square parents who might have heard it playing from the basement. And with lyrics like "Ooh, then I suddenly see you / Ooh, did I tell you I need you / Every single day of my life" coming from the "cute" Beatle, who could blame them for the confusion?

7. "Always" // Bon Jovi

This power ballad’s chorus screams everlasting love—"And I know when I die you’ll be on my mind / And I’ll love you, always"—but the rest of the lyrics tell the full story of a Romeo whose heart is bleeding after his lover left and moved on to someone else. Just another reminder to actively listen to the full meaning of a song before committing to a first dance.

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