When Izzie was a toddler, she loved Laurie Berkner, the so-called Queen of Kid’s Music. Her kindie rock songs were sweet and fun and always had a monster hook. None more so than Boots, a song about stomping around in – you guessed it – boots. Black boots. Frog boots. Rain boots. All the boots.
B-O-O-T-S black boots
In my boots (stomp, stomp)
In my boots (stomp, stomp)
I stomp around in my black boots
With apologies to those parents who had their kids in the early 2000’s (because now this song is stuck in your head, am I right?), but my child, who is now a teenager, can still hear this song and start rocking out. I loved it too, the first hundred or so times I heard it. Yet after about the 10,000th listen, it started haunting my dreams. I still have a visceral reaction if it comes up on shuffle, a brain that screams, “Not again! No. More. Boots!”
I started thinking about Boots last week when Garth Brooks’ classic Standing Outside the Fire came up on my daily walk around The Circle and I lost my mind, dancing in the middle of the road and screaming the lyrics in delight, fist bump raised to the heavens in synch with every drum beat. I’ve had it on repeat every since.
Back before the iPod, remember the songs you would wait hours to hear on the radio? You probably had your tape recorder sitting beside the boom box so that you could record that gem onto a mix tape. For me the songs on that magical mix tape come back easily. Thriller. Time After Time. You’re the Inspiration. Hold On. Don’t Stop Believin’. And even now, when these songs come on, I roll down the windows, turn up the volume, and sing at the top of my lungs.
So why do we love certain songs, never tiring of them, while others grow stale after a few listens?
Sociology calls this the mere exposure effect. Basically, simple familiarity – even subliminally – makes you like things more. It goes back to evolution, which favors those traits that help us survive. Our ancestors learned quickly to trust what they already knew but distrust the novel. If you experienced something once and it didn’t kill you, chances were pretty good that it wouldn’t kill you the second time. So the more you hear it, the “safer” it feels and the more you enjoy it.
But this doesn’t explain why Standing Outside the Fire makes me happy-dance but Boots makes me want to punch a wall. So I dug deeper and learned that “our jams” become so based on two things: emotional response and complexity of arrangement.
Let’s look at arrangement complexity first. Humans love the familiar, because it makes us feel safe, right? But when our basic needs have been met – food, shelter, sex – we also crave a little variety. Our jams are usually ones that are layered in such a way that we might notice new things upon different listens. In the case of Garth, you have his unique voice, that driving drumbeat, that smoking fiddle. Yet I probably heard this song a hundred times before I noticed the mandolin or caught Trisha Yearwood’s harmony vocals.
But even more important is the emotional punch a great song delivers. This is music’s magic. I remember hearing Garth’s song at a fraternity party in college for the first time. My besties and I twirled and boogied, solo cups raised in that giddy freedom dedicated to being young and unencumbered and just a little tipsy. Gwen was even wearing a yellow and black “mo betta” shirt, a western-style shirt with block coloring that Garth made famous. That memory alone would be enough to cement it as a lifetime jam. But then I read the lyrics (on the CD liner notes, of course). Life is not tried, it is merely survived if you’re standing outside the fire. His meditation on courage is beautifully written poetry and affected me as deeply as a Shakespearean sonnet. And who can forget the accompanying music video featuring the boy with Down Syndrome? His dad and coach encourage him to sign up for the Special Olympics but he is adamant about running for the real track and field team. YouTube this video immediately if you haven’t seen it (I won’t ruin the ending, but if you don’t tear up you may have a heart of ice). Then we finally see Garth and his guitar in front of those bleachers on fire and well, come on. That’s just great storytelling. You’re left feeling all the good feels. The emotional payoff of a song we love is a reliable shot of dopamine and serotonin, no risky behavior necessary.
And we love what we love. So find that guilty pleasure that makes you grab a whisk and sing-dance around your kitchen. And place that sucker on repeat. Just as long as it’s not Laurie Berkner.