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Repeat as Needed

Stuck in My Head

We’ve all had songs we could listen to it for days on end—and have, much to the annoyance of anyone within earshot.

Credit: Danny PiG

My mother likes to sing silly, made-up songs. When my brother and I were little, she sang us these songs all the time—songs that were part gibber-jabber and part sincere devotion, most of them made up on the spot: “Joshua Rob is a liggetty bob” goes one of the songs she sang to my brother, whose name is, in fact, Joshua Rob. (Although not even the all-knowing Google has a clue what a “liggetty bob” is.)

My mother tells a story about driving Joshua Rob, then two years old and adorably towheaded, around in the car one afternoon in their leafy Swarthmore, Penn., neighborhood. (I had not yet been born.) To pass the time—to calm Joshua Rob and, perhaps, herself—my mother began singing. “One of my nonsense songs,” she says, “just words to music, blah blah blah.” And when she finished the song, Joshua Rob piped up from his car seat. He said: “Again, mommy.”

This is what children do, right? They require repetition. And so my mother sang it again. And when she reached the end of the song, Joshua Rob said, “Again.”

“And I must have sang it to him 20 times,” she says. “Again, mommy, again, again.” And after the 20th time, instead of saying “again,” he did something else: He sang it back to her.

I tell you this story for a few reasons. I tell you because I have been listening to a song on repeat—again, mommy, again, again—for two weeks now. This is not uncommon behavior for me; as long as I can remember, I have found myself drawn to one song, one particular song that I want to hear over and over, unravel its mysteries, turn it over in my hands and strip it bare. I never know quite exactly what hits me: the words, the shape of the melodies, the minor note plunked on a piano, the pfft of a guitar fret being released—but something will erupt inside me, a white-knuckle jones that makes me feel as though the only thing I could possibly be doing at that moment in time is listening to that song, playing it on repeat until I drift off to sleep, am forced to go to work, hear a loud knock at the door, or am otherwise wrested from this strange, sonic meditation.

For the longest time—for 10 or 15 years, at least—I thought I was the only one in the world who did this. Like young boys certain they are the first in the world to have discovered masturbation, I considered my craving to listen to a song ad nauseam a guilty, shameful secret.

“You like that song, huh?” Joshua Rob asked me one afternoon when I was 12, following the 34th rotation of Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.” Maybe he put a little sneer into it, maybe he rolled his eyes. Maybe I was (and am) just exquisitely sensitive. All I remember is that my stomach sank to my knees, I slammed the door of my bedroom, and I bawled.

As soothing as it can be to hear a song you love as loud and as frequently as you want, being caught on the wrong side of the wall from that behavior can be nothing short of torture.

Why so ashamed? I don’t know! I felt alone and conspicuous in my passion, my sheer devotion to the songs. It felt wrong and weird, and it wasn’t until college—until my living arrangements intersected with people my own age—that I began to understand how utterly banal my behavior was. To this day, when I hear the song “Cannonball” by the Breeders, I am rocketed back to a crumbling apartment near the University of Texas at Austin in 1993, where my downstairs neighbors spent long, shirtless afternoons with Hacky Sacks and Shiner Bock, listening to that fucking song so many times I thought I might go mad. Indeed, as soothing as it can be to hear a song you love as loud and as frequently as you want, being caught on the wrong side of the wall from that behavior can be nothing short of torture. I remember, after a breakup, my best friend holed herself up in her bedroom and listened to “Harlem Blues” from the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack until her roommate finally pounded on the door and hollered, “No matter how many times you listen to that damn song, you’re still not going to be a black woman, and he’s never going to come back.”

Lately I’ve been asking other people about the songs they listen to all the time, hoping to find some common thread. And though I’ve yet to find one, I have discovered people do not easily cop to the songs they listen to on repeat. When asked specifics, they will often become cagey, or embarrassed, saying something like, “Well, it’s going to sound really weird, but…”

And it always does sound really weird. Honestly, I never quite understand the songs people choose. My friend recently told me she listens to some song by the National every day. (I didn’t even realize she knew the National.) Remember when Michael Phelps’s iPod list was published during the Summer Olympics? What do we make of the fact that the human dolphin wants to hear Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me” to get in the mood to, I dunno, win eight gold medals?

To list the songs that I have needed over the years, whose wisdom and comfort I have leaned into like a heartbeat in a chest—well, it would be akin to showing you my diary: mawkish and maudlin, full of clichés and affection too quickly won. But these songs had messages I wanted to hear, messages as mundane as a slogan on a coffee cup and yet somehow powerful and real. They are affirmations set to 4/4 time: “I’m truly / Truly in love with you, girl.” “All we need is just a little patience.” “Don’t stop believing.” “You’re just too good to be true / Can’t take my eyes off of you.” “Don’t go away / Say what you say / Say that you’ll stay.”

The last line is from an Oasis song called “Don’t Go Away,” and it’s the eighth track on the 1997 album Be Here Now. Oasis hit America in the fall of 1995, my junior year of college, when I was sick of radio rock and knee-deep in bourbon and Texas blues. I did not care about the brothers Gallagher and their tabloid exploits, although it would have been hard to be a young American that year without hearing the band’s breakout hit, “Wonderwall.” But I was baffled when friends—good friends, with good taste in Texas blues!—cooed their excitement about Oasis. What’s the big deal, anyway? And also: What the fuck is a wonderwall? (It’s the name of the 1968 film for which former Beatle George Harrison wrote the score. But before you could look up such things on Wikipedia, bear in mind that we had to wonder about these questions for months on end, with no BlackBerries or Google to consult, nothing to do with our idle hands but smoke.)

Oasis makes sing-song anthems for addictive personalities who believe in melody and romance, and if there is one quality to all the songs I have needed over the years it is that they start small and grow bigger.

It was about five years later that I got into Oasis—right around the time everyone else decided they were over-hyped wankers. But since I always thought they were over-hyped wankers, what surprised me when I finally listened to the music was the complexity and emotional muscle of their songs, the heartbroken specificity of the lyrics. (“And maybe / You’re gonna be the one that saves me”—has rock music ever had a better summary of love’s grim optimism?) Oasis makes sing-song anthems for addictive personalities who believe in melody and romance, and if there is one quality to all the songs I have needed over the years it is that they start small and grow bigger—keys change, harmonies multiply, choruses explode until you could set off fireworks over the stage. Some people call these power ballads. I like to think of them as torch songs that can play in Shea Stadium.

I rediscovered “Don’t Go Away” a few weeks ago. I can’t even remember how. (Did I hear it on an old mix tape? A happy iPod shuffle accident?) But it’s not insignificant that I have spent the last five months climbing my way out of heartbreak, wishing someone back into my life after he left, unexpectedly and, it seems, irrevocably. The song is such a precise vocalization of my childish, clingy desires that it kind of makes me cringe: “So don’t go away / Say what to say / Say that you’ll stay / Forever and a day / In the time of my life / Cause I need more time / Yes I need more time just to make things right.”

For two weeks, I listened to the song on the 40-minute commute to work, and I listened to the song on the 40-minute commute home. And each time it began—quiet, underwhelming, four clicks of the drumsticks followed by a distorted blaze of guitar—I would think to myself, “Eh, I’m not going to finish the song this time. This time I’m going to switch to something else midway through.” But then the chorus would kick in, the strings would swell, I’d collapse into some memory, some fantasy, only to find myself tumbling out of a rabbit’s hole at the end of the song—breathless and a bit disoriented, like a ride that had made me just dizzy and exhilarated enough to say: “Let’s do it again.”

I’ve listened to “Don’t Go Away” about 200 times over the past two weeks. Because repetition soothes me, I’ve formed strange and bone-deep attachments to books and movies in my life, things I return to compulsively. But I’d have to quit my job and abandon sleep and drinking to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or read Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius that many times. “Don’t Go Away” lasts four minutes and 40 seconds. For pure catharsis, that’s a damn good return on investment.

“I think maybe you’re trying to learn something from the song. That’s what repetition does for us. It allows us to learn the song.”

Still, I wanted to know why I needed that song. That song in particular. What about it stirred me so profoundly? I wanted to email Noel Gallagher. I wanted to call Sasha Frere-Jones. I wanted Freud to rise from the grave, light his pipe, stroke his chin, and dissect every single measure. I could not do any of this. So I did the next best thing.

I called my mother.

“I think maybe you’re trying to learn something from the song,” she told me one afternoon. “That’s what repetition does for us. It allows us to learn the song.”

The truth is, one of the reasons why I return to the song is that I do discover things inside it each time. For instance, there is a simple five-note guitar line that threads through the whole musical arc. There is the well-placed shimmer of a cymbal that sounds like the chill of a winter wind. But these observations pop up unexpectedly, like gold in a patch of earth I was never excavating.

What I feel when I listen to the song, more commonly, is that I am completely and utterly transported. Me? I think too much, I worry too much, I wallow, I wonder about things I have no control over. But halfway through this song, my mind has quieted into a low-grade hum, and I no longer feel like a woman lying in her bed wearing jogging pants and an iPod but like a woman on the beach as the sun sets, waves crashing onto a cliffside, planes circling overhead, the squawk of birds, the rustle of the cool breeze, the love of my life beside me, and all I can do is collapse into him further and further, my hands clawing just to get deeper inside.

I try to explain the emotional effects of the song to my mother. I use different words. “The song begins small, OK? And then the strings come in, and then the chorus comes in, and it explodes into this huge, smashing symphony until my heart is pounding and then it just throttles back until there’s just these small, plucked guitar notes, and it ends.”

My mother is a classical music expert, who discusses esoteric qualities of music in a simple and educated way that I admire. I know that she will never understand my craving for Oasis’s “Don’t Go Away”—in the same way I will probably never understand her craving for Bach’s cello sonatas—but I am still yearning to put a name to my desire. And so I ask her, “What I just described to you about the song, the way it swells and fades—what would you call that?”

“Well, I would call that music,” she says. She is not being smug. She is being precise. “All music is soul music.”

I guess so. And it’s not surprising that my soul, bruised and wanting as it is, needs these words: “So don’t go away / Say what you say / Say that you’ll stay / Forever and a day / In the time of my life / Cause I need more time / Yes I need more time just to make things right.”

I went through a few weeks when I thought something might change between me and the man who had left me. I started to think that I could forgive him, I started to suspect he might change his mind, and I started to believe what the song was telling me, that you can sing someone back into your arms, you can woo them with beautiful words, you can beg and plead and keep them from slipping away at dawn.

But the song really isn’t about that. It begins with an image: “And as the day was dawning / My plane flew away / With all the things caught in my mind.” It’s an irreversible separation. The plane doesn’t turn back around. No one runs down the tarmac and leaps into your arms one last time. You can write the pretty words full of longing, you can sing the song to stadiums, 20, 200, or 2,000 times if you must, but it does not change the fact that you left someone on the ground while your plane kept hurtling forward, like it or not, away from everything that has passed and everyone who came before. Some people go away, whether we love them or not. That’s the simple truth of the song.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have something to listen to for the next two hours.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Sarah Hepola is the Life editor at Salon. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Nerve, and on NPR. She lives in Texas with a sweet orange cat who is not fat, he’s just big-boned. If you just read her story about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, she’d like to point that it is fiction. More by Sarah Hepola