Saturday, July 12, 2014

How Unintended Are Certain Song Associations?

Kerry and I were driving home on Thursday after a great week in Chicago. At some point in Ohio, as amber waves of grain extended in each direction, the song "Goodbye Stranger" came on the radio. While the opening chords played, I asked Kerry, "Is this the 'Goodbye Toby' song?" I was referring, of course, to the classic scene from The Office in which Michael bids farewell to his least-favorite H.R. rep through a mean-spirited parody.

"Goodbye Stranger" was written by the English band Supertramp in 1979, about three decades before the English version of The Office made its way to the U.S. I find it interesting that my main association with the song is through that classic episode and scene.

I decided to assemble a list of songs that have associations completely unintended by their creators. In other words, when you hear certain songs, do you think of something completely removed from the song itself?

Before we get to my list, here are some of the major reasons for many of our song associations.

TV Shows and Movies
The film soundtrack has the most obvious effect on our collective song association. For instance, I can't think of Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" without envisioning Forrest Gump's epic run and my buddy Chris's Forrest impersonation. I also can't hear "Shout" without thinking of Bluto and the Delta House. Likewise, TV shows often claim songs in our minds' ears.* "Jungle Love" makes me think of Everybody Loves Raymond and "Wanted Dead or Alive" is almost synonymous with Deadliest Catch. Many shows create songs that become mainstream. (Think: "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and many similarly-popular theme songs). However, those tunes were created for the purpose of that particular association, so they're disqualified from this list.

*Minds' ears? Huh?

Theme Songs for Sports Teams/Players
Some obvious examples are WWE entrance songs ("Sexy Boy", anyone?), at-bat music (Josh Reddick had an interesting choice), and goal-scoring celebration songs (the Blackhawks rock with "Chelsea Dagger").

Funny Parodies
The aforementioned "Goodbye Toby" exemplifies this category.

Musical ads are usually intertwined with TV, but our association of certain songs with products is so pervasive that they get their own category. Jingles are often created for commercials by guys like Charlie Harper, but existing songs are also frequently hijacked by companies to sell products.

Now, here are my top 10 songs with unintended associations.

10. Song: "Like a Rock" by Bob Seger
Association Category: Advertisements
Long before I had ever heard of Seger or his Silver Bullet Band, my parents bought an early-model Chevy Suburban. My family was so big (nine of us in all) that my friends actually called the vehicle "The Tolan Tank." The Suburban came with a CD that had one song on it. If we hadn't heard "Like a Rock" enough in Chevy commercials, owning a Suburban forced that song-product association on us forever.

9. Song: "Layla" by Derek and The Dominos
Association Category: TV Shows and Movies
In one of the best scenes in movie history, this Clapton classic plays after Jimmy orders a "cleanup" following the Lufhansa heist. It's such a well-done scene in part because of the presumptive disconnect between the song and the action. After all, "Layla" is about hopeless love, not...well, not this:

8. Song: "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen
Association Category: None
I always associate this song with idiots who think it's an anthem about the awesomeness and infallibility of America. If you've listened to any of the actual verses, you know that Bruce is railing against the U.S. government and American involvement in Vietnam. However, I've seen many people from my generation play it as an ode to the good ol' U.S. of A.

7. Song: "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe" by Barry
Association Category: TV Shows and Movies
I honestly could make a whole list of songs that The Simpsons has changed for me. (Thinking...) But this Barry White ballad probably morphs the most from its original meaning in my mind. Because when I hear this tune, I think of snakes. Yup, snakes, because Barry features prominently in the "Whacking Day" episode. Barry even claims to "love the sexy slither of a lady snake." Take from that what you will.

6. Song: "Enter Sandman" by Metallica
Association Category: Theme Songs for Sports Teams/Players

Mariano Rivera's entrance song should probably have been another hard rock classic, "Panama" by Van Halen. But through one of those fluke of history, he ended up being forever linked to Metallica's song about children's nightmares. I actually couldn't think of a player that was less likely to listen to heavy metal than Rivera, but he was a nightmare for opposing hitters. Either way, when Yankee fans hear this song, they'll always think of Mo.

5. Song: "Jump on It!" by The Sugarhill Gang
Association Category: TV Shows and Movies
I already mentioned The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and its impact on our associations with music. The "Jump on It!" dance is probably the best example. When you Google the song, the video from The Fresh Prince actually comes up before the actual music video. This would have been higher on the list, except The Sugarhill Gang sort of expected people to dance to their song like this. (Well, not like preppy kids from Bel-Air, but you know what I mean.)

4. Song: "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by
Association Category: TV Shows and Movies
Seriously, when is the last time you heard someone sing this song without throwing an F-bomb into the chorus?

I love that it's a total bit character with a performance for the ages. Excuse me... a fuckin' performance for the ages.

3. Song: "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" by the Righteous Brothers
Association Category: TV Shows and Movies
I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this song association. I've seen countless duos of men sing this to a girl in a bar, thinking that they were the first guys to replicate the gag first created by Goose and Maverick in Top Gun. My buddy Ken and I also once tried to replicate it, thinking we were the first guys to do so. Either way, I wonder how much "carnal knowledge" The Righteous Brothers accumulated because of this song.

2. Song: "The Circle of Life" by Elton John
Association Category: Parodies
The best song from the soundtrack of The Lion King has been parodied countless times, notably in the adoption episode of Modern Family. But as with many songs, the South Park parody is the one that sticks in my head. The Mr. Hankey scenes in the show's Christmas episodes have provided some seminal TV moments, and "The Circle of Poo" remains one of the best.

1. Song: "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Stealers Wheel
Association Category: TV Shows and Movies
We've all seen the playfully chilling Reservoir Dogs scene:

Like "Layla" in Goodfellas, this song was popular before the movie. Unlike the Clapton/Derek and The Dominos hit, though, I can't separate this song from the movie scene in my mind. Every time I hear "Stuck in the Middle with You," I automatically think of mutilated ears. And, that my friends, is the epitome of a song association completely unintended by the singers.

Honorable Mention
Song: "Come with Me" by Puff Daddy
Association Category: TV Shows and Movies

Song: "Singin' in the Rain" by Gene Kelly
Association Category: TV Shows and Movies
I've never seen A Clockwork Orange, but Kerry suggested this as a particularly weird song association.

Song: "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge
Association Category: Theme Songs for Sports Teams/Players
The 1979 Pirates of Dave Parker and Willie Stargell are one of the most famous teams in sports history, but I wasn't around to witness that historic season.

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Follow FranT on Twitter at @frantweet and follow Brian Kavanaugh at @btkav

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