HOOKED ON A FEELING: Why do certain songs go round and round – and round – our heads?

THE GUARDIAN / Emma Brockes

I've been here before, but not for a while. The last attack, from memory, was Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, but that was quick – I was in and out in two days. Same goes for Petula Clark’s Don’t Sleep in the Subway. There was a weird period when the needle stuck – no judgment – on Dan Stevens (Dan Stevens!) singing Evermore from the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack, which must have had to do with my then very young children and had to be borne with patience until it worked itself out. There was Macca doing Golden Slumbers. Which reminds me, oh God, of the week I lost to In My Life, except, crucially, it was the 1991 Bette Midler cover version not the Beatles’ 1965 original. All I can say is it made sense at the time.

Last week, like the return of a fever dream, I fell into a deep, unfightable obsession with a single song, that in the last seven days I have played on a loop probably hundreds of times. I have listened to it while I’m stacking the dishwasher and making the kids’ lunches. It has taken me round the supermarket, and back and forth to a doctor’s appointment. My apartment has never been so tidy, tidying providing me with an excuse to put off work for another five minutes so I can get in two more revolutions. At night, I’ve warned my children that if they fall off the sofa and start screaming I won’t hear them because I’ve got my Pods in and, for reasons I can’t explain but that they may one day understand, I am compelled to listen to Linda Ronstadt over and over and over and over until suddenly, just as abruptly as it started, it stops.

The embarrassing thing about this is not the doing of it, but the fact that this time around the song in question – which is, don’t get me wrong, amazing – came via a TV show. It feels somehow less good to do things at the same time everyone else is doing them, in this case listening to Long Long Time. Ronstadt recorded it in 1970 and it resurfaced last week as the soundtrack to episode three of The Last of Us, HBO’s zombie series which, taking time out from the flesh-eating apocalypse, told the tear-jerking love story of two men. The day after the episode aired, demand for the song on streaming services jumped by 4,900%. By the end of the week, that number had risen to 13,782%.

Nick Hornby has written about falling down obsessive wormholes like this as a question of trying to figure out the puzzle of a song. It’s like code breaking, an attempt to internalise the structure of the thing until it holds no more secrets. The key changes that surprised or moved, the break in the voice in the penultimate phrase; you listen greedily, trying to absorb it at cellular level. When, as in this case, a song is from a TV show, there is something else going on. Long Long Time is a great number and Ronstadt deserves to be listened to on repeat forever but a large part of the legs of that song have, obviously, to do with the emotional resonance of Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman in a beautifully rendered piece of telly. (The episode’s other theme – Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight – almost dragged me down a simultaneous wormhole, which I just about managed to resist. I don’t have the time to do two of these at once!)

Sadly, Ronstadt hasn’t profited from the explosion of interest. She sold the rights to her master recordings in 2021, but in any case, according to her manager, never owned Long Long Time because of her original Capital Records contract. She has, however, been very gracious about Gary White, who wrote the song in 1969, still being in a position to pick up the royalties.

Even more sadly (for me), once I come out of the other end of an obsession like this, the song is dead to me, if not forever then for at least six months. And it’s never as good again. It’s sucked dry, used up, like that bit in the movie Ghost when Patrick Swayze jumps into someone else’s body, then jumps out again all limp and spent. I can feel the turn coming, but I’m not quite there yet. In fact, I can’t wait to finish this piece so I can get in one, two, at a pinch maybe, three more plays before I have to run to wake up the kids.



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