I’ve got a song stuck in my head. You probably do too — earworms are like bacteria; they latch on and begin to multiply, and somehow in the course of a week we’ve probably cycled through the chorus of “Love Shack” 100 times without ever hearing the actual song. It’s a funny trick that our senses and our memories play on us. Because while we end up with these songs swirling around for hours, days, even weeks at a time, sometimes we don’t even know how they got there.
This one’s a bit more extreme, though. I’ve had a song bouncing around — swaying and shimmying and bumping inside my brain — for something like three or four years, as if to intentionally drive me to the point of genuine torment. But it gets better; I don’t even know what the song is.
I’m guessing this isn’t foreign to most readers. Who among us hasn’t been in the odd situation where an unknown, even downright mysterious piece of music — or some fraction of it — wormed its way between your ears and left a loop to be repeated ad nauseam? It’s happened to Al Bundy, at least. I know I’ve been punctured by the mystery hook more times than I can remember. It happened once with The National’s “Available.” It happened once with Girls Against Boys’ “From Now On.” It also happened with some ambient library music that scored scenes in caves in cartoons in the 1990s — which my wife doesn’t think exists, and I’m having trouble proving her wrong. And now it’s happening again.
As best as I can remember, the song that’s looping in my flawed and fuzzy memory first entered my consciousness about five years ago, during an interlude or as a music bed in VH1’s “I Love the ’70s Volume 2” (I had to do some research to verify this — the only other thing I remember was John Waters’ “Porn or Not Porn?”). It’s a smooth-soul/disco track most likely released between 1976 and 1980. It has a signature guitar lick. And stylistically speaking, it’s somewhere between George Benson’s “Give Me the Night” and Boz Scaggs’ “Lowdown.” That’s about as much information as I have to go on.
And it’s kind of embarrassing/frustrating that this is all I have, because I’ve been trying to identify this damn song for years. I annoyed my personal network of resources with this riddle for a few days, taking it to Facebook in the hopes that one of my other music nerd friends will know exactly what I’m talking about. I got a lot of suggestions: Marvin Gaye, Roger and Zapp, Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers, Patrice Rushen (getting warmer!), et al. No dice. I listened. I double checked. I felt a little like Lucy asking Schroeder to play “Jingle Bells” … only I didn’t even have so much as a title.
So I came up with a backup plan. I downloaded a free app that can supposedly identify songs when you hum the tune into your phone. So I give it a shot. First time around, apparently it didn’t hear any music. I hum my slightly off-key approximation of the song closer into the mic. I get Robert Goulet. I get Something Corporate. And I get Demi Lovato. So I start to test this app’s accuracy with a control melody: Judas Priest’s “Breaking The Law.” I try a different song; it gives me Demi Lovato again. I didn’t check to see if this app was developed by Demi Lovato, but I’m starting to wonder.
After I try and fail to get technology to aid me, I do the last possible thing I can think of to try to identify the song (well, second to last). I go to RateYourMusic, I look through the databases of all the singles released in 1976 through 1979, and I start to stream on YouTube all of the songs that meet the criteria of that lone, vague hook. I get close. I get closer. But I still haven’t found that damn song.
It’s probably worth asking why this is so important. Short answer: It isn’t, but a personality quirk or a character flaw — call it whatever you like — won’t let me let it go. Long answer: I’ve spent most of my adult life, and a significant portion of time before that, cramming my noggin full of sounds and facts and trivia. I was even a member of a music trivia team with a pretty unstoppable win record (at least for a while, anyhow). I write about it, I enjoy writing about it, and at the end of the day, I hope that I’ve been able to provide someone else with some valuable food for thought as it pertains to music. But while the vast expanse of information that’s become available to us over the years has provided seemingly endless resources for those who know how to search for them, there are limitations: You can’t Google a goddamn melody. And apparently you can’t hum it into your phone either, unless you’re looking for Demi Lovato.
Under other circumstances, I’d be discussing a cultural trend, an event, an interesting pattern or phenomenon, or just something with any significance, really. But here I am, groaning about a song that’s been stuck in my head for a few years, because it just won’t leave me alone. If anyone knows what it is, hit me — I’ve already come this far. Or maybe I’ll just replace it with something else. You know, I’ve got this strange urge to listen to Demi Lovato…
Update: The song has been identified! Thanks to Glenn Case for determining correctly that it’s “Too Hot” by Kool and the Gang. Now I can get some sleep. (Credit also due to Adam Gimbel who identified the song just a few minutes later.)
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.