In pop music, what's the line between catchy and irritating?
The musician Robert B. Sherman, who died last week at 86, penned a ton of beloved songs with his brother Richard, including the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Mary Poppins and the music from Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang. But his most enduring accomplishment may be the most irritating song of all time: "It's a Small World (After All)."
No song has gotten on people's nerves as consistently as that theme-park paean to global unity, written in 1964 during the Sherman brothers' decade-long tenure at Walt Disney Studios.
The annoyingness of "It's a Small World (After All)" is so well-established that even Disney has acknowledged it with a self-referencing wink. In a scene from The Lion King, the movie's villain, Scar, asks Zazu, who he has captured, to "sing something with a little bounce in it." When his prisoner breaks into "It's a Small World (After All)," Scar quickly interrupts: "No! No. Anything but that."
The "anything but that" reaction was obviously not Walt Disney's original aim when he invited the Shermans to a factory in Glendale, California, to see the prototype of an attraction designed for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.
Musically, the ride was a mess. It featured animatronic kids, representing countries all over the world, singing their respective national anthems simultaneously. The late Sherman described it as "one horrible cacophony" in a 1996 interview with Performing Songwriter magazine. "You see our problem," Disney told the Shermans. "We have the World's Fair pretty soon and we need a song that can be sung in every language."
Moreover, "it had to be simple and translatable, and yet it had to be repeated so often over a 14-minute ride that it couldn't be boring," Sherman said. As the story goes, the original "It's a Small World (After All)" was a slow ballad that the brothers would speed up to a jaunty tempo at Walt Disney's request. The attraction was named after the song: "Pepsi Presents WALT DISNEY'S 'it's a small world'—a Salute to UNICEF and the World's Children."
Close to 50 years later, "It's a Small World (After All)" can be heard at the "It's a Small World" attractions of five Disney theme park locations worldwide—in California, Florida, Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. That is to say nothing of its (omni-)presence and performance on records, radio, television, film, video games, apps, ice cream trucks, Disney cruise ships, and an array of merchandise, from Mickey Mouse watches to music boxes.
There's another venue where "It's a Small World (After All)" is on continuous loop: the mind of anyone who hears it. The song is a common "earworm," a piece of music that can easily get lodged in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that retains audio information, identified by researchers at Dartmouth College in 2005.
James J. Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati, has done extensive research on what makes certain songs get stuck in the head. His theory is that music can create a "cognitive itch—the mental equivalent of an itchy back," especially when three qualities are present: repetition, musical simplicity, and incongruity.
No one would argue that "It's a Small World (After All)" isn't simple or repetitive. The word "world" appears 14 times in the 22 English lines of the song. Its verses are short, and the chorus consists of one line, repeated three times, followed by a slight variation on that line.
That lyrical repetition is reinforced by the song's insistent musical theme, which Robert B. Sherman's son, Robert Sherman Jr., broke down on Songfacts.com: "One thing which makes this song particularly 'catchy' is that the verse and chorus work in counterpoint to each other," he said. "This means that you can play the same chords over and over again, but with different melodies. The repetitive, yet varied pattern tricks your mind into absorbing the work without it becoming tiresome to your ear. There are many who would disagree with this, however!"
As for incongruity, one could point to the cheerful young singers of "It's a Small World (After All)." An online poll conducted by composer Dave Soldier in 1996 surveyed approximately 500 people about their most and least favorite musical sounds. Children's choirs were on the "hated" list, along with bagpipes, accordions, banjos, synthesizers, harps, and organs.
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"Children's music is difficult for grown-ups, a lot of the time. It's really meant to appeal to things that a childish sensibility enjoys," said Carl Wilson, a music critic from Toronto and the author of Let's Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste. "And for grown ups, that can be maddening, especially when you've been exposed to that your entire life. 'It's a Small World' is way better than the Barney song, for example, and the Barney song practically makes adults run screaming from the room because it's so specific to what a toddler likes."
"It's a Small World (After All)" is communicatively incongruous, too. Passengers going through the inescapable ride on track-bound boats surrounded by water hear the song in English, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish. To the non-multilingual, being sung to in a series of foreign dialects has a taxing effect, similar to being spoken to in a language one doesn't understand.
Not all earworms are annoying, of course. Adele's "Rolling In The Deep," for example, is a catchy song that people can't seem to get enough of. "Who Let The Dogs Out" by the Baha Men, on the other hand, is also quite catchy, but clearly listeners have had enough. "It's a Small World (After All)"—which, in fact, has been covered by the Baha Men—falls into the annoying species of earworm.
But why? Jim Nayder, the Chicago-based Annoying Music Show correspondent on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, suggested that the way the song was first experienced may have contributed to its "annoying" status.
"A lot of people had to wait in line for the ride at Disneyland, and, of course, they played that song over and over, so if you're standing for half an hour in the sun, waiting to go into the ride, I think on that level it hit thousands of people," he said. "Maybe millions."
There's also an argument that the song feels dated. Written in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the song's well-intentioned message about equality makes it a relic of mid-60s idealism. But as Wilson pointed out, "sentimental music, with some exceptions, doesn't tend to date very well."
"I imagine that when the song was written, this actually seemed like a pretty fresh, progressive set of things to say. You know, it was in a period of internationalism, and when anti-racism and anti-xenophobia were kind of a fresh perspective," he said. "Some decades later, these things seem like kind of hokey and obvious things to say. "
Nayder, who kicked off the Annoying Music Show's 15-year run by playing Slim Whitman's yodeling version of "It's a Small World (After All)" noted that some of the most annoying songs are the result of artists boldly going where they shouldn't have, resulting in jarring numbers like "Proud Mary" by Leonard Nimoy, Bing Crosby's cover of "Hey Jude," and Elton John's misguided take on "To Be Young Gifted And Black."
"What happens is, a format becomes popular, everyone jumps on the bandwagon, and then you have these horrible efforts," Nayder said.
Indeed, Disney has put out an alarming number of "It's a Small World (After All)" remixes, each a painful attempt to retrofit the song to a "modern" sound. See: the Studio 54-ready disco version from Mickey Mouse Disco (1979), the "RapMania! Mix" from DisneyMania 3 (2005), and J-Pop singer Koda Kumi's thumping house remix from Disney's DreamPOP: Tribute to Tokyo Disneyland 25th Anniversary (2009), and surely more to come.
But annoyingness does not end with "It's a Small World (After All)" and its many remixes. Technology has ensured that the rate of not just music, but annoying music, will only increase. The still new-ish climate of video streaming and social media is what made something like Rebecca Black's unintentional megahit "Friday" possible. An annoying earworm if there ever was one, in 2011, in a blaze of mockery, it was instantly catapulted into the Internet's pantheon of meme songs.
With 545,460 "dislikes" (and 131,115 "likes") on YouTube "Friday" has united of listeners from all over the world for a common cause: hating "Friday."
The irritating qualities of "It's a Small World (After All)," then, may be an asset. In a roundabout way, the song has made good on its own sentiment—nothing can bring people together like an annoying song, after all.
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