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Understanding Earworms: Why Outkast's 'Hey Ya!' gets lodged in your brain

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In Understanding Earworms, City Pages writer Tigger Lunney joins forces with two University of Minnesota musicology professors — Alex Lubet and Peter Mercer-Taylor — to dissect and unpack the the most irritatingly catchy songs from every era of popular music. We take on the best songs, the worst songs, the songs that get stuck in your head and simply won't leave.

It was just like that moment in all of your favorite movies: A small group of tough guys/crime fighters/ex-soldiers on the run/athletes//breakdancers/jewel thieves/suit-wearing blues musicians, separated after a moment of greatness, find themselves in the same room, teaming up again to face their greatest challenge. Or win the big game. Or save the neighborhood. Or “get the band back together.” Except, of course, it was just me sending Drs. Lubet and Mercer-Taylor an email.

“Hey, the Earworm piece about Taylor Swift was a huge hit. How do you feel about doing some more?”

The distinct character of an earworm, or even the concept of earworms, is something that bypasses cultural zeitgeist and drills directly into the hive mind. (This is probably why, since originally pitching this project a few months ago, I've seen other writers gearing up to take on the same subject.)

A song that sticks in your head balances on a high-wire between its unique aspects that make it stand out and the fact that it's rooted in a comfortable familiarity that sucks us in immediately. Earworms don't glue themselves to our brains because they're the best songs (although they can be), or because they're our favorite genre of music. They do it because they excrete something much more primal, that you can't avoid, because you're stuck.

And in hip-hop, there may be no song stickier than Outkast's “Hey Ya!” If you've ever wondered why you can't get this song out of your head, don't worry. The award-winning hit from the duo's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, with Andre 3000 as its driving force, ranks high on lists of popular music's most catchy songs. And for years after its 2003 release, we all walked around like zombies humming it or muttering lines under our breath without ever realizing it. But why?

This is where Peter Mercer-Taylor comes in, pointing out something I've never noticed about the song before.

“The most distinctive thing about this song — that thing that's just different enough to hook us mightily — lies in the weird rhythm. In 'Hey Ya!' there's a pattern that repeats throughout the song, but, every time around, it gets weird in the middle: There are two beats missing. So, you can't just count "1-2-3-4" over and over again in this song.”

Wait, what? It's a hip-hop song. The beat is danceable as hell. How can this not be straightforward? Yet, Andre kicks things off with a 1-2-3 count, the beat immediately jumps in, and there's no possible way to force the beat to make sense unless you do it like this: 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3-4; 1-2; 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3-4. Trust me, I tried. Twenty times. My brain turned to jelly.

Yet, somehow this crazy beat manipulation makes the song more catchy, not less. Then, you add in the hooks: the rhythm guitar, the funk bass line, the twee toy-piano synth in the chorus, and a hit is born, right? Not so fast, says Mercer-Taylor.

“We are driven forward by the sense that each passing verse flies more out of control than the last. The first verse has a nice, well-behaved melody. That melody's forgotten in the second verse, which even finds the instruments dropping out for the dramatic, tragic conclusion, as though things are threatening to fall apart. The last verse is scarcely even a verse: just a conversation with the (imaginary) audience that gets nuttier and nuttier as we work our way toward the breakdown. Thus does energy mount across the song. It's almost like there's a kind of madness here struggling, verse by verse, to get out.”

And throughout, Andre 3000's playing with the essential tension between how damn happy the song sounds when the lyrics are about a relationship collapsing. The verses focus on how love declines, while the chorus joyfully shouts “Hey Ya!” to the rafters. Yet the chords in the verse have a happy feel while the chorus evokes a touch of sadness.

No matter how celebratory the song feels, how many calls to dance (“shake it like a polaroid picture,” which is about as kick ass and absurd a metaphor as anything in hip-hop history), no matter how Andre denounces denial, there's a very real struggle here. It's like four minutes of a guy who, even as he tries to “be honest,” is slowly going nuts inside.

As Mercer-Taylor puts it: “Saying 'alright' 14 times in a row doesn't make everything sound alright. It sounds crazy.”

Which is why — more clear to me now than ever — the song's called “Hey Ya!” It's not just cool sounding nonsense. Andre is fighting his way not only out of a bad relationship but his own conflicted, painful feelings. He's actually karate-chopping his way out.

Next week: Alex Lubet and I try to figure out the irritiatingly bland "Shooting Stars" by OneRepublic.