How to get “We Are Young” out of your head

I used to dread hearing Fun’s song “We Are Young” come on the radio. Upon hearing just a few warbly notes from it’s admittedly catchy anthem-like chorus the song would tunnel its way into my mind, and I’d be humming it for the rent of the day. It would be different if it were a good catchy song, like Gotye‘s Somebody That I Used to Know. Instead, I’m stuck with it’s vocal scooping and lame lyrics running around  in my brain.

I’ve always struggled with the best way to get rid of these kind of ear-worms, until I read Kelly Mcgonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. Her book is a great look at the tricks our mind plays on us to zap us of our personal resolve. More importantly, she offers tips for fighting that, and increasing our willpower, whether it is avoiding the urge to have another piece of chocolate, or avoiding a song on the radio.

Her secret for vanquishing an ear-worm?  Embrace it.

She writes about a study done at Trinity University in San Antonio in 2005. The researcher, Daniel Wegner, asked students to spend five minutes thinking about anything except white bears. This ended up just guaranteeing that white bears were all they thought about. Wegner coined this idea “Ironic Rebound”, the idea that when you try to push away a thought, it tends to rebound and return.

Mcgonigal writes the best way to counter this idea is to give up:

When you stop trying to control unwanted thoughts and emotions, they stop controlling you. Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, that thought becomes less primed and less likely to intrude into conscious awareness. Paradoxically, permission to think a thought reduces the likelihood of thinking it.

DJ Earworm
(Photo credit: qthomasbower)

So I decided to embrace “We Are Young.” I started by watching the video a couple of times on YouTube. Until I saw the song perform, I had never realized that Janelle Monáe sang on it. I was a fan of her Archandroid album, but found her contributions to this song to be underwhelming, and somewhat wasted, given her immense talent. That was the first step in my getting “over” the song.

I then decided to see what people were saying about the lyrics online. Whenever I hummed the song, I could never get past the chorus “let’s set the world on fi-a-yer, we can burn bri-ya-ter than the sah-ah-ah-aaan.”  I could see excited high school kids singing this at their prom nights, thinking it was an anthem for their generation. I realized they’d be sadly mistaken.

According to Fun lead singer, Nate Reuss, this is not a rallying call for youthful solidarity, or chasing one’s dream. It is simply a song about getting drunk. He told Rolling Stone:

The lyrics came after my worst drinking night of all time. Have you ever been kicked out of a cab for puking all over the place? I have. The cabbie was demanding all this money, and all I could do was stand on the corner with my head against the wall. It took me another day before I was a functioning adult and could actually write down the verses.

Many people on online forums try to read some deeper meaning into the song. Some question whether it is about a couple dealing with domestic abuse, and trying to rebuild their relationship. I choose to go with an interpretation others seen, which may be closer to what Reuss intended: a story about someone getting drunk at a bar, picking up someone who’s also drunk and willing to “take me home” for a night of casual sex.

Sure, many a prom night has ended in a similar fashion, but it is hardly material worthy of a graduation celebration. It neither celebrates youthful optimism of leaving school, nor captures the anxiety of the future unknown (unless you count trying to figure out a ride home drunk in a cab to be a major accomplishment.

Now, when I hear the song on the radio, or start singing the song in my mind, I embrace my deeper understanding of the song. The subconscious tune-smith in my head has to confront my new disappointment with the music. This has the wonderful effect of killing my ear-worm almost immediately.

Now if I can only do the same with Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.”

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