Saturday, August 25, 2012

Still Life With Robin: I'm About to Give You an Earworm (Sorry!)

by Peggy Robin

Last week Merriam-Webster announced a short list of new words they were adding to their dictionary, including sexting, f-bomb, life coach, and energy drink. Among these familiar terms was one I had never heard before: earworm. So naturally, I had to look it up, and immediately, I was sorry I did. An earworm, I learned, is a bit of bad music that gets stuck in your head, and try as you might, you just can’t get rid of it. Yes, there’s an obvious need for a word to describe this unfortunately common phenomenon, and, of course, the definer must give examples. Urban Dictionary,  which lets its readers supply the examples, immediately infected me with Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks and Champagne Supernova by Oasis (a chronic creator of earworms – just look up their playlist). 

When I did a bit of reaseach into the origins of the term, I hit still more earworms, the worst of which has got to be the intolerably repetitive theme to the Disneyland ride, It’s a Small World After All. Correction, make that: Macarena by Los del Rio, which is not just impossible to turn off once it starts playing inside your head but has indecipherable lyrics, so all you can do is tap nervously to the sound of something like this: “NUH-nuh-nuh-NUH-nuh-nuh-NUH-nunna-nunna, NUH-nuh-nuh-NUH-nunna - heeeeey Macarena!”  

This summer has been a particularly productive season for earworms, leaving us with two of the most powerful and infectious ones ever created. If you’ve managed to avoid either of these so far, then for god’s sake do NOT click on the links that follow. The first --and worst-- is Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe The second (and I won’t argue with you if you tell me you consider this one to be the worst) -- is Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know However, if you’ve already been infected, you can at least ameliorate some of the symptoms by replacing the actual version in your head with one of the parody versions, and at least get a bit of fun out of your predicament. The Gotye parody is literally about how you can’t help singing along, no matter how much you hate the song.

Call Me Maybe parody: 

Somebody That I Used to Know parody (of the instruments and the band):

Somebody That I Used to Know (parody of how much you hate to hear it)

The trouble with an earworm is that while new ones can pop up at any time, the old ones never really go away. You may wake up any morning with Red Rubber Ball playing in your head. Or Rocket Man, by Elton John, who is a veritable one-man earworm factory; the proof: Crocodile Rock, Tiny Dancer, Benny and the Jets, Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart, Levon, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Your Song…. Need I go on?

All of which bring me to another term --not a new coinage but one that’s been around for at least a couple of decades: mondegreen. It’s the term for mis-heard song lyrics, derived from a line in an old Scottish folk song, “They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen” (or, as it actually goes: “They have slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green.”) If Elton John is a hard-working journeyman producer of earworms, he is at the same time the King of the Mondegreens*. Not only do you keep hearing his songs in your head but seldom if ever with the right words.

I give you these examples. (You’ll have to look up the real lyrics yourself. Warning, you may never hear them the right way again.)

Hold me closer, Tony Danza
Watch for head lice on the highway
(from Tiny Dancer)

She’s got electric boobs, a mower, too -- you know I read it in a magazine
(from Benny and the Jets)

I had Olga’s Chevy and a case of B.O.
(from Crocodile Rock)

Rocket man, burning up his shoes on every lawn
I miss the earth so much, I miss my wipes
(from Rocket Man)

And I close with this quatrain from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road:

Goodbye yellow brick road
The dark cow is crying and how
You can’t stand being a penpal
I’m going out to laugh now.


*I swear I wrote this line before I saw this New York Times article calling Elton John the author of more mondegreens than any other songwriter; second place went to the Rolling Stones. )


Still Life With Robin is published on Saturdays on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and on All Life Is Local (where you can use the comments section to let me know your favorite mondegreens and most persistent earworms).


  1. Those are some great examples of bad earworms, and another is Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." That one can torment me for many days after I've heard only a tiny snippet of it. But, the YouTube parody performed by the "On the Rocks" (a cappella group from the University of Oregon), turns my everyday earworm into a super-earworm! Warning: Don't watch or listen to it, if you don't want to get the super-earworm, too.

  2. Here's the direct YouTube link:

  3. I simply had to share this parody of "Call Me Maybe." Despite all the other clever parodies out there in "YouTube-land," I think this is the best of all, because it stars two adorable babies!