The Basement Vapes, Volume 20: Trigger Warning! The Song Remains Engrained

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers puts himself in harm’s way to survey some infectious earworms that just may dig a little too deep.

What are the words to that old song that Johnny Cash covered? “I hurt myself today”? Never mind—instead, I’ll ask you this: What was the longest period of time that a tune ever got stuck in your head? Was it annoying? Did it ever become maddening? Or worse? Are you willing to admit what song it was that made such an impression? 

It happened to me, as I went down a rabbit hole over the summer and had a really bad case of the earworms. Things started getting out of hand after I checked out a YouTube of Tenacious D on SiriusXM’s Octane channel performing an unplugged version of their “Ballad Of Hollywood Jack And The Rage Kage.”

I have to admit that while I enjoyed the film Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny, I had never heard their records, which is weird (for me) but true. Anyway, something about Jack Black’s emphatic vocals got my attention, as did the focused guitar work of Kyle Gass. I still hadn’t grasped the depth and breadth of the pair’s capacity for self-mythologizing, but I was pulled into this saga of broken friendship and final, lasting redemption.

For some reason, I kept returning to this and other versions of the tune until I knew all the lyrics. I even read up on the duo’s back-story and the circumstances that had inspired the ballad. By that time, I was haunted. The song had burrowed into my head and kept coming at me in different states of consciousness—falling asleep, waking up, during the day and in my dreams. 

Then something else happened: Unwittingly, my YouTube investigation created an algorithm that led me to another Tenacious D epic, the official video for “Tribute.” While I now understood the legend nature of the band’s storytelling, the ironic humor and classic hard-rock tropes the duo employed drilled straight into my brain. The chorus, the dynamic hooks, Kyle’s riffs, Jack’s phrasing, the counterpoint—so many moving parts—all mixed up and tunneling deep into the recesses of my psyche.

Maybe the two songs had some common melodic qualities or maybe they just triggered something generational and forgotten inside me, but by the time a third Tenacious D favorite, “Wonderboy,” found its way into my subconscious, I was in real trouble. One tune might take prominence and push another out of the way for a time, but the three tracks became virtually interchangeable and bounced around my brain for months.

Obviously, I’d been listening to these songs way too much; otherwise, I’d never have gotten stuck. In my defense, they are classics within the D’s repertoire. The duo has been together for decades and they still play these songs at their shows. The audiences always sing along, and Jack and Kyle hit their marks every time. 

When these infectious tracks finally faded from my frontal lobe, I decided to ask other people if they ever had a song occupying too much real estate in their heads for too long of a time. 

Some friends relayed their experiences, but one sent an article that claimed it was OK to listen to the same song over and over, as it’s something creative people often do and provides a certain degree of comfort. Apparently “creatives” sometimes listen to the same music obsessively while they’re “working.” While that sounded all well and good, the truth was I hadn’t done a lick of creative work for the entire time this was happening.

My situation wasn’t the same as listening to a piece of music on repeat while focusing on something else—this was different. The comfort angle made some sense, but what exactly was comforting, and how does it get to the point where it turns on you? I’m still not sure.

Most folks said earworms rarely lasted more than a day. Some reported that intrusive tunes came to them via radio jingles or commercials, while others people fell prey to TV themes. If you’ve ever idly absorbed the lyrics of a jingle or a program theme, you know how easily this can happen. 

One friend still suffers from the memory of the Kars4Kids commercial—and he says, “I hate that fucking song.” I’m also told that the Ozempic jingle is currently torturing people, and that repetitious hook was modified from the 1974 hit “Magic” by Scottish pop/rock band Pilot. And who hasn’t emerged from a Disney theme park without “It’s A Small World” running on subliminal repeat?

This can be an occupational hazard for pit musicians. One guitarist had to contend with his own personal medley from hell: “If I Were A Rich Man” from Fiddler On The Roof had somehow blended with “The Impossible Dream” from Man Of La Mancha, and it disturbed him for weeks. Talk about bringing your work home with you.

People also mentioned the “soundtrack to your life” situation, and every generation has its burden. My mom recalled a Cream Of Wheat commercial from the 1940s well enough that she passed it down to her kids like any other nursery rhyme, and we remember it still. Amazing pop tunes can certainly stay with people for a lifetime. One good citizen reported that Harry Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin’” has been right there with him for more than half a century, and that guy has no regrets.

The real kicker drawn from my unscientific survey is that when I asked people if they remembered their old or painful earworms, some folks were re-triggered by the songs that had plagued them in the first place. So, I’m really sorry if that is happening to you, right now, as you read this.

On a lighter side, one good buddy who was re-triggered by my question had a Death Cab For Cutie song in his head for 15 tortuous hours, but he finally figured out the correct lyrics after years of misunderstanding and confusion. So that’s nice, right?

But, in order to write this lighthearted article, I actually had to  think about those three Tenacious D songs again, and now they are all back in the heavy rotation of my mind. 

So yes, I hurt myself today, just for you.