I currently have two songs stuck in my head at once: We Didn’t Start The Fire by Billy Joel and Have You Seen Her? by the Chi-Lites.

“We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning” goes immediately into “why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?”  Over and over again.  Someone please help me.

These two songs are joined at the hip in my brain.  I can’t dislodge them.  Even listening to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier last night did nothing to help.

The Joel song, which I dislike, entered my brain first.  I was driving my son to school and from the car radio I heard the first strains of the song (which I hate) and announced, “Oh my God, this is We Didn’t Start the Fire…I hate this song…”  and with impish glee the boy, who has been diagnosed with ADHD but strangely misses nothing around him, quickly said, “No, no, don’t turn it…”  By the time I found myself explaining to him some of the history references in the song, it was too late: Song You Hate Stuck In Your Head had happened.

I don’t know where the Chi-Lites song came from.  I can’t remember the last time I heard it.  A day after the Billy Joel song became a fixture in my auditory cortex the falsetto phrase from Have You Seen Her?, “why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?” inserted itself right after “we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning” and so has it remained in my frontal lobe loop: “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning…why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?”

Imagine my pain and torture.  Not only are two songs in my head, one of which I hate, the other—which I only like a little, but is nothing like the first, and which grows bizarrely from the one I dislike—but I am beset with figuring out why the second song attached itself to the first.   Was it some failed attempt to escape the Joel song by another?  Are the two songs related in some intricately musical manner that escapes me?  Are the lyrics of the second song trying to say something to the first?  Did I once, on some day long since forgotten, hear both songs in sequence?

There is something post-modern about this kind of suffering, but it perhaps also represents a challenge to all composers and poets: the writer’s block which afflicts us is not a blank page—the blank page would be a welcome state of things—the affliction comes in the form of a page already full of experiences, a brain full of words, words, words and tunes, tunes, tunes, a fecundity overwhelming all originality.

Or, is the clutter a gift, the very stuff of creativity?  Looking through others’ trash is a boon to the imagination, is it not?

But how in the world can trash stuck in your head allow anything worthy to emerge?

How often do we meet very skilled and talented people who can play and recall and recite all sorts of information, but find it utterly impossible to create something new themselves?

Is there a faculty, a capacity, a knack, to resist data, to not remember things, and is this faculty or knack a crucial component of creativity?

Is there a faculty or a knack some of us possess to escape the pit of catchy music, the pendulum of knowing and clever pedantry?

Is knowledge the escape from knowledge?

Is imagination the escape from the imagined?

Is seeing the escape from the seen?


  1. Bob Tonucci said,

    June 18, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Try letting some Beethoven or Mozart ‘tunes’ run through your head.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    June 18, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Wir sind nicht das feuer anfangen!

    Freude, schoner Gotterfunken,
    Tochter aus Elysium,
    Wir betreten feuertrunken.
    Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
    Deine Zauber binden wieder
    Was die Mode streng geteilt;
    Alle Menschen werden Bruder
    Wo dein sanfter Flugel weilt.

  3. Look and Learn said,

    June 18, 2010 at 9:13 pm

  4. noochinator said,

    May 16, 2016 at 10:24 pm

    Speaking of Mr. Joel’s work, this collaboration with Mr. E. John has given me much guilty pleasure:

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