9 Days of the Earworm: How a Song Drove Me Insane

by Will Maclean
Originally Published: 
Left side of a shiny piano with black and golden keys.

I don’t know exactly where it began, but I do know it was a coffee bar of some kind, about two weeks ago. One that has a random mix of songs playing in the background to put people at their ease. You know the kind of thing—soft rock classics from long ago, nothing that tends toward the esoteric or experimental. Just straight up adult-oriented rock, bland as porridge, intended to form a cozy backdrop to the process of buying and drinking coffee.

I pay for my coffee and, while I do so, a song is playing. It’s a song I know. A song I haven’t heard for years. I leave the coffee bar and, sipping my coffee, I realize what the song is: Brenda Russell’s 1988 soul-rock hit “Piano in the Dark.”

And thus, the nightmare begins.

Day 1

It starts slowly. I am loading the washing machine when, in my head, the intro starts. That slickly-produced 1980s intro, setting the scene for the mysterious narrative of “Piano in the Dark.” A woman wonders whether the spark has gone from her relationship. Lo, just when it seems as if it has, she hears her man playing piano, in the dark, and is drawn in once more by his unknowable mystique (it’s impossible to talk about “Piano in the Dark” without sounding like Patrick Bateman).

I am not unhappy to discover the song in my head. I like the song. I think I may even start humming it aloud.

Day 2

As it’s been in my head all day, I decide to watch the video for “Piano in the Dark” on Youtube. This proves to be a mistake, cementing as it does every note of “Piano in the Dark” in my memory and strengthening its hold on my thoughts. The full, dire ramifications of this won’t become clear to me for several days.

The video is, incidentally, baffling. Brenda makes a cup of herbal tea, apparently in real time. Brenda throws playing cards at a hat. There is a piano in the video, but also—much more prominently—a harp. The harp is massive. Why doesn’t she mention the harp? Doesn’t she ever say to her mysterious lover, “Greg, you’re always on the piano, and that harp’s just gathering dust. Can’t we freecycle the harp? We could get a rowing machine instead. Greg, are you even listening? Stop playing the piano in the dark for a second, hm?”


Day 3

I am worried about the mental state of the narrator and participants in the story of “Piano in the Dark”. Maybe, okay, “his” piano playing in the dark is absolutely atrocious. Maybe Brenda Russell is worried about “him” because “he” is sitting there, in the dark, bashing out an atonal racket and howling like a dog.

If the mysterious “he” of the song is doing that, I am starting to know exactly how “he” feels. It’s been 72 full hours now, and I am starting to get edgy. My subconscious, as bored of “Piano in the Dark” as I am, has started inserting rude words into the lyrics, so that now, somewhere in my brain, he’s playing “Piano up his Ass.” I laugh when this happens and then realize that I am laughing to myself, alone, in an empty room. Very much, in fact, like the narrator of “Piano in the Dark.” Oh God.

Day 4

I wake up. Silence. It’s a lovely morning. The amber winter sunshine, clean and strong and definite, is a vote of confidence in the day. There was something I had to remember, or was it forget? No matter. It was not important. I inhale, exhale. Silence, punctuated only by the sound of the birds singing outside. I get up, cautiously.

And then, just as I walk through the door / I can feel your emotion / It’s pullin’ me back (just a little) / Back to love you / and OH GOD THERE IT IS.

Day 5

I am like Job. That’s what’s going on here. Tormented by God, without knowing why. Why me, Lord? I bet even the session musicians and engineers who worked on “P**** i* t** D***” didn’t think about it half as much as I have these last few days. The worst part of it is, I can tell no one about this, lest it infect them too. And so I go through the routines of my day, smiling and nodding, while in my head it’s forever 1988, and Brenda Russell is tossing her big 1980s hair and wondering aloud in song whether her relationship still has that vital spark. That vital spark which is probably ebbing away from me minute by minute, thanks to bloody “P**** i* t** D***.”

Day 6

I have started to wonder if it might have all some deeper meaning. The song mentions a “riddle.” Maybe that is what I have to solve, if I am ever to reclaim my brain. Maybe it’s something to do with the harp. And who is “he”? He who plays piano, under a cloak of darkness? In the video, you can’t see him clearly, but he looks a bit like David Lee Roth. Clearly, a subtle game is being played here.

Day 7

I know who “He” is. He Who Plays The Piano. The Piano that drives people insane. He’s Satan, or possibly Cthulhu. A being older than time, squatting over his vast, evil piano, made of human bones. He will play on for all eternity, to an audience of lost souls, souls like me, who, in the middle of some mundane activity, thought “Ooh! I know that song!” and were forever ensnared.

In other news, I discover that Brenda Russell got two Grammy award nominations for “Piano in the Dark.” This conspiracy runs deeper than I imagined.

Day 8

It seems that all hope is extinguished. I am a hollow shell, which now only serves one purpose. The rest of my life stretches ahead of me, a landscape holding but one feature, repeating every four minutes and 28 seconds. Everything I ever do will be accompanied by this song, inside my head. The silence is broken, and no words are spoken. I wonder which part of my brain will buckle first. I hope it’s my memory.

I meet a friend for lunch. I can barely hear what he’s saying. I am not a person anymore, more a conduit. I am a human iPod, stuck on endless repeat. As he talks, I nod, and the song plays. And then suddenly—before I can stop myself—my beleaguered brain takes the initiative, and in a last, desperate gambit I find I am asking, as casually as I can, whether this friend has ever had a song stuck in his head, and, if so, what he does when that happens.

“Oh sure,” he says. “I normally just sing ‘Kumbaya’.”

“‘Kumbaya’? The campfire song?”

“Yeah, it’s like an eraser. It totally removes any song stuck in your head. Better still, ‘Kumbaya’ itself doesn’t stick in your head afterwards, for some reason.”

I cannot speak after hearing this. Lunchtime ends, and my friend leaves, but I stay seated. And somewhere inside me, Brenda Russell is quaking.

Day 9


It works. Dear God, it works. Every time Brenda and pals attempt to manifest, I just “Kumbaya” their asses. In idle moments, when the intro starts, I just revert to “Kumbaya” and the melody melts away like spring frost.

I look up “Kumbaya” on Wikipedia. The entry says that, despite more recent and cynical renderings of the song, it was “originally a simple appeal to God to come and help those in need.” Amen to that.

And so, gradually, it leaves me. Two days go by without any Brenda Russell-based interruptions to normal cognition. And my friend is right; “Kumbaya” never sticks in my head, it just does its erasing work and then leaves. I am free. My nine days’ companion has returned to 1988, for the mutual benefit of both of us.

And maybe, ever so slightly, I miss it. Or, to put it another way, I cry just a little / when I think of letting go

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