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— by Ben Cosgrove

Deep down, we all like to think that our judgment in just about everything — clothes, food, movies, etc. — is really quite excellent. None of us, after all, leaves the house every morning thinking, "I wish I could do something about my crappy taste."

But what about music? For most of us, our musical likes and dislikes are part of a deeply personal sensibility — one that (we like to think) we've nurtured quite consciously over the years. So what happens to that notion when songs we think we ought to despise, and would never willingly listen to, keep resounding in our skulls — not for a few hours, but for months or even years on end, right alongside songs that we genuinely and rightly love? And what can we do about it?

In at least one professional's opinion, a solution might reside in the very place where the phenomenon begins: the brain. Dr. Galina Mindlin, a neurophysiologist and psychiatrist at New York's University Hospital of Columbia University, has for years been recording patients' brain-wave patterns and converting them into music via a process called Brain Music Therapy (brainmusictreatment.com) in order to treat depression, insomnia and other ailments. Might a less intense form of BMT help do away with the ditties causing so many of us pain in the membrane?

"[Songs playing repeatedly in one's head] remind me of certain obsessions some people have," Dr. Mindlin says. "High-anxiety disorders, for instance." In the same way that working consistently with specific imagery, like ocean waves, under a therapist's strict guidance might help "wash out" the memory of traumatic events in some people with behavioral disorders, Dr. Mindlin suggests that consciously invoking other, more enjoyable music might help erase and replace bothersome songs.

"The person who really has trouble getting rid of a [tune] should find some song that has significance for him or her, in terms of an emotional response. Then it would be easier to replay it while remembering the pleasurable experience, to replace the disturbing musical fragments."

Sound advice, it would seem: at once practical and insightful. One day, if the satanic minions at my health insurance company will agree to foot the bill for cerebral musical erasure, I might act on it.

In the meantime — and offered solely in the hope that others might recognize the predicament in their own lives, and take comfort in the knowledge that they're not alone in experiencing tenacious "musical fragments" — here is a sampling of songs both good and bad that, over the years, have repeatedly popped up, without apparent rhyme or reason, in my own head. Some of the tunes are as welcome as old friends; others, however, produce a sensation akin to Q-Tips moistened with hot tar, dipped in ground glass and shoved with clinical rigor deep into the ear canal.

Shall we begin?

"Breathe" by Faith Hill:
Why Hill's version of this tune rattles around inside my cranium as often as it does is the proverbial riddle wrapped in an enigma. I understand and appreciate that many people — millions of people, it would seem — adore this song. I am not one of those people. In fact, "Breathe" strikes me as ironically titled: every time I hear it playing (outside the confines of my own head, I mean), it seems to suck the life, air and energy from the room. And yet there it is, in my head. A lot. Like, when I'm eating lunch, or reading the obituaries. I can't explain it. But I wish it would go away. I'm not kidding. Make it go away. Please.

"The Heart of Rock & Roll" by Huey Lewis & the News:
This 1984 hit single is a strange beast: a celebration of rock and roll that feels like all of its heart and most of its rock and roll have been surgically extracted, isolated and destroyed. Huey seems like an all-right guy — humble, funny, genuine — and only a crabby, disagreeable dork would rag on the entire output of a generally likeable band like the News. But when "The Heart of Rock & Roll" starts up in my head, with its maddening, never-quite-fulfilled hint of a real groove, it feels like the heart, while beating, is also more than a little arrhythmic.

"All Down the Line" by the Rolling Stones:
Here's one I welcome: Leave it to the Stones to create a song comprised entirely of R&B clichés — trains, sex, whiskey, salvation — and somehow make it sound as if they'd just invented the genre. As a single track among an embarrassment of riches from their gritty 1972 masterpiece, Exile on Main Street ("Rocks Off," "Rip This Joint," "Ventilator Blues" and on and on), "All Down the Line" might be just another Jagger/Richards rave-up to some ears. But whenever its opening guitar licks start playing in my head (and they kick in quite frequently when I'm on the subway, in a car — on the move, in other words), the feeling is as carnal and new as it was the first time I heard it on my older brother's scratchy vinyl copy of Exile a couple of lifetimes ago.

"Take Your Mama" by the Scissor Sisters :
The Scissor Sisters' breakout hit poses a question that sounds a bit like a second-rate Zen koan: Can one hate a song that one really, really likes? Well, Grasshopper, cogitate on this — for the first, say, 15 seconds of "Take Your Mama," all is well with the world. It's sinuous and slutty, with just enough of a Honky Chateau-era Elton John vibe to open up the ears. But after awhile, cracks appear in the glitter: The vocals are a little weak (perhaps because Jake and Ana haven't quite grown into their dreams of trans-everything fabulosity), and while in concert it would make for a perfect excuse to rub up against consenting strangers, the recorded song suffers from a lullaby-like monotony. If Barney the dinosaur and his friends had a playdate at Studio 54, this is the song that would close out the party. Fifteen seconds a day of "Take Your Mama" playing in my head? Excellent. Hearing it over and over and over? Call the babysitter — to keep an eye on me.

"Juke Box Hero" by Foreigner:
In the universe of British arena-rock bands, Foreigner always felt like a kind of Bad Company lite. They had some terrifically fun, dumb songs ("Double Vision," "Love Has Taken Its Toll"), but Lou Gramm, Mick Jones and their crew were perhaps a bit too slick — in a tight-jeaned, leather-vested, helmet-haired kind of way — for their own good. "Juke Box Hero" is a case in point: Not only do any references to jukeboxes sound watery and irrelevant post-Joan Jett's cover of "I Love Rock and Roll," but the image of the jukebox hero conjured by Foreigner's galumphing, hard-to-shake tune looks suspiciously like a member of (you guessed it) Foreigner. It's the musical equivalent of a mirrored funhouse — without the "fun."

"Freak Scene" by Dinosaur Jr.:
The first time I saw Dinosaur Jr. perform, shortly after the album Bug (which contains this song) was released in 1988, I was jammed into the old Kennel Club in San Francisco with several hundred sweaty fellow fans of some relatively new thing called "alt-rock." It was a very, very loud and happily chaotic show, but what I recall most clearly from the night is that when J Mascis played the first simple, titanic chords from "Freak Scene," a woman standing next to me let out an alarmingly feral shriek and went into a dance of such blissed-out ferocity that I thought she'd bust out of her own skin. To this day, and for reasons that I'm quite sure having nothing to do with that crazed, gyrating bacchante, the song's opening chords are often the first things I hear (or think I hear) before I'm fully awake in the morning. Why does this particular song roll though my mind when I'm still half-dreaming? I don't know, but I like it.

"I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith:
Diane Warren has written close to 100 Billboard top 10 hits. Whatever it is that turns a songwriter into a mega-über-super-duper songwriter, she's got it. But she also wrote "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," a song that Aerosmith turned into a mega-uber-super-duper hit single in 1998 — and for that, I cannot forgive her. The song routinely pops into my head at exasperating times — most recently manifesting itself a few moments after I'd smashed my toe against what felt like a lead-filled porcupine while returning groggily to bed in the dead of night — and something about its melody and lyrics sets my nerves on edge. Do I wish that the Toxic Twins were still living (or enduring) the lifestyle that produced sordid gems like "Lord of the Thighs," "Rats in the Cellar" and "No More, No More"? Of course not. Do I wish that they'd never recorded this ostensibly harmless ballad? Yes. I do. Fervently.

"California Stars" by Billy Bragg & Wilco:
This dreamy, hopeful tune was recorded for the 1998 album Mermaid Avenue, on which Jeff Tweedy & Co. joined British indie icon Billy Bragg in completing some of Woody Guthrie's rough drafts of songs. For me, it usually makes an appearance during especially trying times — a friendly reminder that if a nation like America can produce a human being with a soul like Woody Guthrie's, then maybe we're not a doomed pseudo-civilization of consumerist sheep, after all. Maybe.

"Trapped in the Closet (Chapters 1-5)" by R. Kelly
If Lou Reed and Star Jones had a love child, and that child grew up to write an opera based on randomly viewed episodes of "All My Children," it might come out sounding something like this chatty R. Kelly joint. But does it stick in the head because it's a creation of stupefying, jaw-dropping silliness, or because it's a work of genius that, like one of Beethoven's adagios, contains secrets and subtleties that the listener only begins to fathom over time? Either way, there it is. It's playing right now. Can't you hear it? Can't you?

Many, many more entries could, of course, be added to the "good" side of this musical ledger — the 1969 Johnny Cash/ Bob Dylan duet "Girl of the North Country," Bad Brains' "House of Suffering," Tony Bennett's version of "Just in Time," Outkast's "B.O.B.," the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," TLC's "Creep," the Ramones' "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down," about half of everything Prince has recorded, and on and on.

The rest of the unwelcome, "disturbing musical fragments" frequently playing inside the old bean, however — and there are many — are hardly worth talking about. Or rather, to be more specific, I can hardly bear talking or even thinking about them anymore, lest they claim squatters' rights above my neck for another several years. After all, nobody likes a whiner — even when his judgment, in pretty much everything, is really quite excellent.


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Illustration: Karl Heitmueller

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