Sometimes I wonder if my subconscious senses endings before I do and uses lyrics to communicate as much.
Years ago, I wrote about mondegreens, or misheard lyrics, which got me thinking about the equally curious but much more poorly named phenomenon of earworms, or song fragments that churn endlessly—often unbidden—in the brain. On the surface they can be fantastically annoying, especially if you don’t enjoy the song your brain’s manic DJ choices—but underneath all that, could they be a message?
Earworms don’t seem to signify anything more than a recently heard song that’s become “stuck.” For me, these tend to be pop songs, which are repetitive by nature and constructed by masterminds, like Max Martin, who know how to create something not only catchy but catching. One listen to Taylor Swift’s latest single—just one!—and it’ll be with me for a week.
Beyond that, my brain adores language so much that I’ll often link a turn of phrase with a song. Here’s a not-very-interesting example of what I mean: During a scenic drive some years back, a friend said, “This sure is a winding road,” and immediately the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” started playing in my mind. In moments like that, it feels as though my brain is a musical and all the neurons simply waiting to fire and burst into song.
But sometimes the lyrical phrases that affix themselves to my internal monologue (or would it be soundtrack?) feel as though they’re hinting at a bigger picture.
Only a few months into my last long-term relationship, I found myself walking Clinton St. in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill—a path I preferred for its tree-lined escapism—and internally singing the last chorus line of Kacey Musgraves’ song “It Is What It Is.”
The track details a relationship of convenience, one in which neither party is particularly drawn to the other, but they’re both sort of there…so why not? “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored,” Musgraves sings with a kind of resigned indifference. “It is what it is/Till it ain’t/Anymore.”
The song serves as the culminating moment on Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park. It’s a quiet track on an album full of reflective moments that don’t rest in more somber poses because Musgraves slips in winks and wisecracks to soften their respective blows. But “It Is What It Is” is vulnerable, raw.
For the longest time, the chorus would break the surface of my mind, and when it would I was tempted to draw parallels to my relationship at the time. We got along fabulously in ways that seemed to matter but don’t necessarily go the distance. Sometimes it felt like we were a convenience for one another, but that didn’t stop us from trying to force something more.
When that happened—when things started to get more serious—I’d feel something in my gut rear up like a wild stallion who’s caught sight of the bit, which is when the song’s lyrics would float up from the ether of my mind and stick in my head for a spell: “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored.”
Lately I got my record collection back and I added Musgrave’s debut to it, which prompted a more focused kind of listening than I’d previously given the song. Beyond the chorus and its one-two truth punch, the song paints a much larger picture. “We’re so much alike it ain’t a good thing. Too dumb to give up/Too stubborn to change,” Musgraves sings.
The chorus that would often crop up as I walked the sidewalks of New York and ponder the big ol’ “why” of it all was enough to signal a message. But hearing the song in its entirety, it felt as though my brain knew something I didn’t—that it had stored all those previous listens of “It Is What It Is” and kept sending smoke signals via the chorus, obliquely encouraging me to put the picture together.
I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist, but if anyone were to ever study the lyrics that ripple the waves of our minds, especially the why and when of it, I think they’d find that certain songs—at least the ones that tunnel into our being—sometimes act like a message in a bottle. If we’re willing enough to listen.