The first time I heard Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” I loathed it, like wouldn’t-get-through-30-seconds-before-I-changed-the-station loathed it. But here I am in August, a few months after the song’s release, and I find that while I still truly do not enjoy the song, my resolve to burn it out of my mind and all existence has weakened, and I no longer feel the overwhelming need to leap out a third-story window if it suddenly comes on while out with friends.
As it turns out, there’s a real, neurological reason for my surrender, and it’s one the music industry uses to its full advantage — think of it like Stockholm Syndrome, but auditory — and the kidnapper with whom you slowly grow to sympathize is Katy Perry’s latest auto-tuned nightmare.
The phenomenon was revealed in an fMRI study, which suggested that repeated exposure to a song is actually a more effective means of winning the hearts of the public than writing a song that they might actually like. This is because the emotional centers of the brain are more active when a person hears a song he or she has heard previously than when hearing an unfamiliar song that better suits the person’s musical taste. It seems our brains confuse the ability to recognize and remember a song with actually enjoying it.
This is not breaking news for the music industry, which takes full advantage of what science calls the “mere exposure effect,” a phenomenon discovered by scientist Robert Zajonc back in the 60’s that applies to almost anything — colors, fashion, songs, even people. With enough exposure, the thing in question will become popular.
While it’s technically illegal for recording labels to pay radio stations to play certain songs, they can pay independent promoters to “incentivize” radio stations to play their music, or create program caps to make sure a song gets plenty of spins. In other words, it isn’t necessarily the popularity of a song that determines how often it’s played, but how often it’s played that determines how popular it is.
So, next time you’re feeling aghast at your sudden lack of hatred for a song that initially made you want to jab ice picks into your own ears, you can at least be assured that it is not a sign of weakness, but a host of scientific and marketing factors conspiring against you — perhaps we are all lemmings heading for the pop culture cliff, but at least we’re going down singing?