I’ve got a problem, it’s an earworm. From now on whenever I listen to Nine Inch Nails I have an associated memory with the controversial KONY12 campaign. All because they had to use the song ‘2 Ghosts I’ in their introduction (if KONY12 has one thing going for it, it’s that the soundtrack is quite good). So why do songs get stuck in our heads and does it happen often?
It turns out that earworms are quite common, there is an inherent propensity within music to get stuck in our heads and there is no clear cut rule as to why it happens. The Earwormery.com database which has collected surveys about earworm experiences, has shown that there is no formula to creating an addictive song. This is because the phenomenon is truly up to the individual, as seen by the low number of common recounted earworm songs. This means that there is something unique about one’s character, environment or other third party factors which amalgamates into a susceptibility to being hooked by a particular song. Obviously repetition is a factor to how hooked we become but there are some instances where only one listen will be enough. So during our daily lives there will be various triggers which prompt a recollection of a song; such triggers include word associations and stressful situations.
So why does this happen? There are two main theories – that music is a multi-sensory stimuli that can be encoded into our subconsicous because of its personal and emotive features; and the other theory is that earworms are an evolutionary trait that play an important role in information retention. Take for example, the historical examples of bards that sang tales of epic triumphs or the poetry of Homer where the rhythmic character of song and verse engendered itself to the oral tradition.
On a side note, it just had to happen that my earworm was related to KONY12, a campaign that has recently bombarded various social networks – currently it is one of the top trending topics on twitter, as well as being primely perched on the leader board for the highest number number of inane shares on facebook. Disregarding the fact that Invisible Children have a number of issues as an organisation, for example they have never had an external audit and there is next to nothing in respect to transparency (no one really knows where donated money is allocated), the social media campaign is quite worrying.
First off I would just like to clarify that I’m not a fan of Joseph Kony neither will I regale you with an argument line that questions why Kony is being singled out amongst the unfortunately large number of dictators in the world or other pressing social issues. It is undoubtable that he is responsible for a number of atrocities, but the manner in which this campaign has effectively created a virtual lynch mob that has at best a superficial understanding of the key issues at play, is disheartening. It is this mob mentality that has created periods of instability within Africa culminating in the deaths of innocent civilians. This is the risk of the current social awareness campaign, a campaign that is spreading disinformation (if anyone actually watches the entire video before sharing it). Kony is not in Uganda! Furthermore it is hypocritical to advocate military intervention especially by the Ugandan military which itself has a long history of human rights violations; as it is hard to imagine hauling Kony in front of the ICC without some sort of military action. Uganda currently has American ‘military advisors’ (they had those in Vietnam) a country that has failed to ratify their commitment to the ICC whereby it is an express provision of any alliance between US forces and coalition parties that no American soldier be extradited before the ICC for things such as torture or other war crimes (if you want American firepower say goodbye to human rights accountability). There is a lot of hypocrisy here, but what do you expect from a filmmaker who proclaims the injustice of child soldiers whilst exploiting his own son as the main protagonist in his propaganda.
It turns out there is no cure to earworms. The only way is to replace the current earworm association with another – hopefully a better campaign than KONY12 will use Nine Inch Nails.
For more information see this great blog post by Foreign Policy.
UPDATE: March 17
It’s sad that recent events will overshadow the robust debate that has emerged since the launch of the KONY12 campaign although it is hard to get past the fact that Jason Russell has had some sort of mental breakdown by going on a rampage by vandalising cars and allegedly masturbating in public. Nonetheless I think we are seeing some of the positive outcomes of the campaign; George Clooney amongst other celebrities was recently arrested for protesting outside the Sudanese embassy. Whilst not directly related to the KONY campaign it demonstrates the willingness of those in public life to take a more proactive role; whether or not we will see a surge in activism due to Invisible Children remains to be seen however we should not let the recent private turmoils of the Jason Russell to shroud our gaze away from the real issues at play.