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"Len me your ears"

By Tony Carnevale
Arizona Summer Wildcat
August 9, 1999
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Arizona Summer Wildcat

Every so often, a song comes along which refuses to allow itself to be dislodged from my head. Right now, that song is Len's "Steal My Sunshine." You've probably heard it; it's the one that goes "You steal my sunshine" ad nauseam. You can probably sing it right now. Go ahead, no one's watching.

I really, really like "Steal My Sunshine." Sure, it's hippy-dippy lyrics are surrealism for high-school dropouts, and the artificially hoarse inflection of the guy who sings half of the song is annoying. But "Steal My Sunshine" makes up for its deficiencies, mainly when it comes to the repetitive loop that serves as its backbone. The stuttering bassline and echoey, syncopated percussion have a compelling white-boy groove to them. And though I'm ashamed to admit it, I could probably listen to the song a hundred times in a row and not feel compelled to vomit.

At any given time, there's usually one song that fits this category. More often than not, the role is filled by some flavor-of-the-month single on Top 40 radio. Past titleholders have been "Closing Time" by Semisonic and Trio's "Da Da Da." Why do I, in most other ways a music snob, stoop to the inexcusable depth of enjoying what millions of other people also enjoy? What do these songs have in common other than their popularity? The answer: they're all pretty damn catchy.

Some people think they appreciate the power of catchiness, but don't really understand what it is. Example: upon hearing Sugar Ray's "Every Morning" single on the radio, someone said to me, "I know I shouldn't, but I really like that song. It's just so catchy." This person was wrong. "Every Morning" is not catchy. "Every Morning" is droning, torturous, and uses one chord for its entire duration. Sugar Ray's ghostwriters wouldn't know catchiness if it slept with their girlfriends. Though I never thought I'd give thanks for Sugar Ray's existence, at least they have proven that achieving catchiness -- an undefinable combination of simplicity, elegance, wit, and other elements that I can't even put into words -- requires effort.

Still more people have a philosophical bone to pick with catchiness. They seem to think that making a catchy song is akin to "selling out" -- that a catchy song is as artistically relevant as a bag of microwaveable popcorn. They listen to Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, and other bands whose claim to fame is that they rip off the Beatles, yet their pretentiously oblique songs and overly complex chord sequences don't actually sound anything like the Beatles. These bands and their fans fail to realize that what made the Beatles great was that they were true masters of the catchy song for the entire duration of their career. "Polythene Pam" is every bit as catchy as "Please Please Me." The Beatles were able to keep being catchy without getting boring, and that's what made them the Beatles. Olivia Tremor Control is far too self-consciously cerebral to even touch the Beatles. (Oasis is exactly the opposite -- they desperately want to be catchy, and their utter ineptitude at it reinforces the assertion that being catchy requires talent.)

Sometimes I'm so effectively seduced by the catchiness of a single that, hoping for another Beatles, I get the whole album. (Yes, I know that's exactly what's intended.) Usually I'm disappointed, but every so often I find the proverbial diamond in the rough. So, my expectations high, I got the Len album ($5.99 at Best Buy!). Of course, I was disappointed. Of course, "Steal My Sunshine" is the only song out of 12 that demonstrates any craftsmanship, any intelligence. And yes, it's the only song that's catchy.

Sigh. Time to listen to Sergeant Pepper again.