Column: Tortured by music: The year’s most insidious, relentless earworms

Taylor Swift performs onstage during iHeartRadio Jingle Ball 2014 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Her "Shake It Off" is one of the year's most relentless earworms.
(Kevin Kane / Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

Once they nestled into the mind, 2014’s most enduring earworms never let up. Seeming to gain joy and momentum with each melodic loop, the stickiest brain music soundtracked our inner dialogue for weeks on end. These split-second loops — or cleverly worded choruses, too-obvious-for-words melodies, remarkably loopable structures — kept us up at night, scored our barely awake morning coffee. We whispered the word in the shower without even realizing it. “Surfboard. Surfboard.”

Like the most effective earworms, they then outstayed their welcome.

The below works transcended critique. Some were great songs. Others were terrible. What they shared, though, was an ability to serve as a tool of both pleasure and torture while the external world spun unawares. Used by one insidious part of the brain, the part that apparently revels in filling the head with music whether we want it there or not, these songs prevailed despite the logical brain’s protestations.

Below, a subjective list of the five most unshakable earworms:

1. Taylor Swift, “Shake It Off.” Released on Aug. 14, the song has been a plague from day one — so much so that I’ve come to marvel at its allure — and have a nongrudging respect for it. Which is saying something, because during the worst moments of “Shake It Off” fever, I experienced “Poker Face”-era repetition, the kind that stuck on four or eight bars and then bored into the skull like hammer and nail.


If shrinks, social workers, pastors or police had been inside my head during those few “Shake It Off” weeks — “The players gonna play play play … The players gonna play play play … shake it off, shake it off, shake it off, shake it off” — I’m pretty sure I’d be locked up right now. “Shake it off,” she said, and it was like Taylor was toying with me. “Shake it off. Shake it off. Shake it off.” Believe me, many of us tried.

2. Ariel Pink, “Put Your Number In My Phone.” Were a computer able to track play-count, I’d wager my psyche spun random parts of this sticky love song at least 27,500 times over the weeks and months of 2014. My internal historian will recall the trip to Vermont as the journey I took with my wife — and Ariel Pink’s voice serenading me in quieter moments with the lyric, “ ’Cause what would tame this gypsy heart but fruits food fresh on wine?/ Your luscious lips entice me to discover.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to rank “Put Your Number on My Phone” in my personal earworm all-time hit parade, right alongside Paul McCartney’s evil “Sister Susie” refrain in “Let ‘Em In,” the wickedness that is Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” the great “Getting Jiggy with It” blight of 1998 and Rihanna’s dominating 2007 “Umbrella” run. (I actually think I have a little PTSD from Lady Gaga’s aforementioned series of 2008 “Poker Face” torture sessions.)

3. Michael Jackson, “Love Never Felt So Good.” I can’t even write about this song because if I think about it for too long I know my Christmas is going to be ruined. Let’s move on.

4. DJ Dodger Stadium, “Never Win.” One of the biggest hits of the year within this noggin’s four inpenetrable walls, the Los Angeles house music production team DJ Dodger Stadium’s “Never Win” was an endless presence. Featuring a male vocalist singing the words, “Never win, no you’ll never win … Never win, you know you’ll never win,” it played in the head through much of June and July. Not the biggest confidence booster, that’s for sure.

If it wasn’t that “Never win … no you’ll never win” lyric, it was the monumental peak that followed: a female singer wailing as if in final defeat, one that echoed in an eight-bar loop --- “Oooooooh!” That cry of despair played while I shopped, commuted, tried to sleep, showered, listened to music.

5. Lorde,” Yellow Flicker Beat.” For one long weekend in early October, Lorde and I walked as one, me living a mundane life, Lorde chanting, “They used to shout my name, now they whisper it” like a skipping record. Taunting me. Haunting me over and over again: “this is the red, orange, yellow flicker beat-beat-beat-beat ...”

Honorable mention: Beyonce & Jay-Z, “Drunk in Love.” The world’s biggest pop star lived within me, where she sang the same lines with the same inflections across the year: “We woke up in the kitchen saying ‘How the hell did this ... happen?’ — oh baby.” I’ve involuntarily chanted the word, “surfboard ... surfboard” hundreds of times — and grained a heck of a lot of wood.

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit