Four Essays (i)

Blood, Sweat, and Fears
by Marianna Maruyama

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I used to know a high school girl named Jacqueline. She was fast. I mean she was the fastest runner in our school, and her favorite running song was Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves. She had such a powerful combination of confidence, beauty, and speed you couldn’t help but envy her even if her taste in music was a little clichéd. The girl had it all - brains, brawn and beauty – she wasn’t walking on sunshine but running on it.

There is a thing about music and running. Athletes know it, Spotify capitalizes on it, and Haruki Murakami glorifies it (and wants everyone to know he knows it). And you know it too. Even if you are not a runner, there are songs that make you want to get up and run. Sometimes you want to run away from the music, sometimes you want to run to it, and sometimes you just want to get going somewhere – anywhere.

Supposedly, there is a perfect tempo for running songs, and the majority of the songs on any Super Pumped! or Get Moving! playlist stick pretty closely to about 120-140 BPM. Most of the tracks that end up there have only vaguely memorable lyrics, but there are a few that get seriously stuck on an internally vocalized loop using a couple of catchy, repetitive phrases. These are the ones that we can’t get out of our minds. Even the mere suggestion of brief musical phrases triggers the memory of songs we wish we’d never heard. I still recall an opinion column published in Runner’s World, a magazine I used to subscribe to when I was teenager, hailing the Knack’s My Sharona as The Perfect Race Song. In case you don’t remember the lyrics, it’s basically a song about a guy getting an erection and trying to keep it in his pants when he sees the young Sharona. I was in high school when I heard it, so in the context of high school cross-country running, I didn’t really process the lyrics, or relate to the phallocentric universe those words belonged to, and it simply functioned as a motivational song for me. But that goes to show that language and music operate differently when a person is sweating. Thinking about motivation and taking it back to Murakami, it’s real mystery to me how he could listen to not one but two (!) albums in a row on his daily run by the 1960s band The Loving Spoonful. One of the more popular songs, Daydream is so much more of a porch-swinging, sunset gazing, popsicle-licking song than exercise music, that at least I can admire him for his idio- and rhythmia-syncrasies even if I can’t appreciate his writing.

Since the beginning of this landmark year, there has been a flood of covers of the British band Dexy and The Midnight Runners’ classic earworm “Come on Eileen” with all kinds of people around the world parodying it with the alternative lyrics “COVID-19” – a perfect rhythmic match. I’m sorry to be the one to share this with you if you haven’t come across it yet because it is a sticky one. But it’s ironic that this song is the most popular choice for a lyric-rewrite, since the lead singer Kevin Rowland is notoriously finicky about every word he pens. According to pop music chroniclers, in Come on Eileen, he obsessively rewrote the lyrics until they were perfect to his ears, and once they expressed exactly what he wanted, he delivered the message in an incomprehensible mumble. Even now after having heard the song hundreds of times, nobody really seems to understand what the song is about, much less who Eileen was and why he wanted her to come on so much. I guess that is part of its appeal.

Meanwhile, a whole new musical genre has appeared overnight thanks to home-recorded cover songs and Zoom bands with cringey names like “The Quarantunes”. Thinking back to Murakami’s Daydream, one thing is clear: people seem to have different ideas about what is motivational. One of the “cheer-up” videos I got during the first lock-down period was from a distant Sicilian friend doing a homemade music video in his kitchen where he impersonated the much younger and more agile Jennifer Beals dancing to the song “Maniac” from Flashdance. I know it was well-intentioned, but having not heard from this person in years and then getting this video as the first renewed contact between us really freaked me out. As such, countless versions of excessively-cheerful renditions of the already-manic song “Come on Eileen” make perfect sense in times of self-isolation and distancing because its musical form reflects the way a lot of people felt during the first round of restrictions on movement:

Yes, it is going to be fine! Come on let’s get through this.
No, hold on. I’m not so sure about that.
Oh come on, don’t be afraid! It will be ok! Let’s go!
Fine, well, if we must…
Oh no, we can’t turn back now!
Let’s go as fast as we can and just see what happens!

The song starts out at a moderate and upbeat pace, slowly speeds up, slows back to a crawl about halfway through, and then - against better judgment - orgasmically speeds up again until it fades out in a repetitive cycle. Sorry, but anyone who has this song on their workout playlist is loopy.

My Sharona, on the other hand, is the perfect combination of a running song and a Covid-19 cover song, since the title and lyrics can easily be substituted with “my corona”, as one example. Turns out that it’s almost as popular as Come on Eileen as a DIY cover song in corona times. But while Dexy and the Midnight Runners had many more lives in them as a band taking various formations, and lead singer Rowland is now pretty much going solo, they probably weren’t tempted to do their own remake – unlike The Knack.

My Sharona was The Knack’s one-hit-wonder. So when the pandemic rolled around and gave the band a chance to cover their own song with the title and lyrics “Bye Corona!”, it kind of made sense that they would try to make an updated version. In response to the sharp, sudden spike of interest in their song, they altruistically decided to make their own cover video in order to generate some revenue for Music Health Alliance, a Nashville-based organization that provides healthcare support services to uninsured members of the music industry. Good idea, right?

You might think I’m being harsh, but you have to see the video yourself. When you go to a doctor in The Netherlands, where I live, the first thing they ask you is, “what is your primary complaint?” and I think it’s a good starting question for lot of other situations as well, not excluding artistic production. When it comes to this video, my main complaint is that it makes me sad. These warm-hearted guys who used to sing about their raging libido are now explaining the fact that there’s no lead singer because he died, meanwhile introducing their viewer to their dogs Freddie and Winnie. You start to wonder how they’re going to rewrite the main lyrics that were so sexed up into something more along the lines of a public service announcement – and then you realize they really aren’t planning to sing at all until the end of the song when they just let out a series of harmonized shouts: “bye corona!” Maybe it’s a better version after all and gives no cause for sadness?

Has everyone already forgotten the YouTube video that made the rounds in the first stages of the European outbreak showing an Italian mayor shaming the residents of his city for exercising too much outdoors? “Where are all of you going?” he shouted, as he himself stood outside watching them. “Where are you running?” The first time I watched it, I admit that I too, felt some kind of misdirected righteous agreement with him, and shared his anger directed at people who would dare go outside to stretch their legs and lungs in such a critical moment. But I don’t blame those runners at all now. They probably had some silly song stuck in their minds that they had to exorcise.