Some songs become earworms due to their utilitarian value. They cheer you up when you're down, they get you through your morning routine before the coffee kicks in, they help you time your reps at the gym. These songs are often simple and repetitive in structure, with one or two highly catchy melodic lines lines looped throughout. You'll forget the verses and any subtle metaphors or emotional twists they might capture. It's all about that streamlined musical phrase and its distilled meaning, acting as a handy label on your jarful of emotions, whatever they may be.
Exhibit A: Daniel Powter's “Bad Day.”
[jump] Daniel Powter and his sensitive piano playing know how you feel. He wants you to know that you're not alone. He also wants you to know that bad days don't last. Your feelings are validated at the same time that they're acknowledged as just that: feelings. Powter's ultimate goal is embedded in the song lyrics themselves: “Sing a sad song just to turn it around.” The tune is actually sweet and sunny, lifting your spirits even as you sing it. Don't you feel better already?
Another element of the song's success as an earworm is its subdued sense of playfulness. You get the feeling that Powter is making mild fun of people who construct dramatic doom and gloom scenarios from simple daily setbacks, like when my kid announces that the day was “the worst day ever!” because she spilled her milk at lunchtime. Dude, you had a bad day. It happens to all of us. Go ahead and wallow in your personal misery until you laugh at how ridiculous you're being. Meanwhile, we'll all wait, humming the chorus while you do.
The song is kind of ridiculous, too. It's a great tune to invoke not only when your own day is an accumulation of endless tiny aggravations, but also when you find yourself unexpectedly bearing the brunt of someone else's bad day. Boss yelled at you for no good reason? Ball game backing up traffic? Spilled wine on your favorite shirt? Hum this song to yourself and smile. It doesn't fix things, but it lightens the mood.
Even I, legendary grump, can't manage to loathe this song. It's so dang well-meaning. It's the irrepressible friend we all wish would pat our knee when we're feeling like the world is stepping on our toes for no good reason. It's warm mittens and fuzzy kittens and meaningless, cheerful rhymes. It's that bad Dad joke that magically snuffs a tantrum. It works. Darnit. See, you're smiling now.
Speaking of success, “Bad Day” had it in spades. The first single off Powter's self-titled debut album, it spent 12 weeks in the Top 40 and was the best-selling digital music download of 2005. It was utilized memorably by American Idol for its elimination rounds and is also featured in several commercials, most recently by the NFL every time the playoffs roll around.
Then again, Powter has been unable to even remotely recapture his signature song's success, thus relegating him to the confines of a one-hit wonder. Ouch.