And now, a random missive from 1996:
Do you want to play a game? I’m about to type a title, and I want you to focus on the first association that pops into your brain when you read it.
Let’s do it:
That Thing You Do!
What are you thinking about right now?!
If it’s not writer/director/co-star Tom Hanks, then it’s almost surely this
eternal, infernal eternally-infernal infernally-eternal racket:
Whether or not you clicked play, if you’re already familiar with the song, then enjoy having it stuck in your head again for the rest of eternity!
Hanks’ insistence on playing this title track over and over and over and over and over again feels like either cinema history’s most obnoxious practical joke, or a borderline avant-garde commitment to abusing the audience’s sense of artistic normalcy.
This otherwise cotton-candy affair dips into the avant-garde to capture essential truths about one-hit wonders, and about the then-new marketing apparatuses (apparati?) wielded to turn a fluffy ditty into a hallmark standard.
Any followers of the theatrical avant-garde will recognize the trick of playing the same song ad infinitum to reorient and disorient the listener’s relationship to it. The progression usually operates like so: “Ooo, I like this song” becomes “Wow, the creators must REALLY like this song, too” becomes” “Really? This song again?” becomes “Jesus Christ, they need to stop already” becomes “OK, this isn’t even enjoyable anymore” becomes “I fucking hate this song” becomes “OK, clearly they’re not doing this for conventional entertainment’s sake, so what the fuck is going on here?!”
The avant-garde revels in dragging the audience to a place where such potentially-meaningful meta questions can be forcibly asked as “what the fuck is going on here?!” That Thing You Do!‘s musical repetition should hopefully lead to the same analytical place.
First off, it reflects how the music industry weaponizes the media-industrial complex to inundate the masses with a product for their own commercial gain. The movie channels this equation by playing the song on an endless repeat; it positions the audience as a regular schmo in the 1960s, who wouldn’t have been able to turn around without smacking into the song blasting from any and all nearby speakers. Such ear-worms must be catchy tunes in their own right, but allow me to direct you to the countless number of catchy singles that never penetrated the Zeitgeist; without a businessman like Hanks’ character pushing the song down the ear-gullets of anyone and everyone, then “That Thing You Do!” could’ve easily joined the infinite annals of ignored attempts at musical stardom.
Similarly, would you remember the song so vividly if director Hanks hadn’t played it too many times during the movie’s duration? Exactly. The audience’s evolving relationship with the song taps into how the American public probably would’ve responded to it at the time: “Oh, this is a nice song!” becomes “Yeah! I could listen to this all day!” becomes “OK, when I said that, I didn’t mean I literally wanted to hear it all day” becomes “Please make it stop” becomes “Seriously, this is so annoying” becomes “Fine, you win, I love it, and I’ll never forget it”. Such is the calculus that ear-worms are made of, when pervasiveness becomes ubiquity, as That Thing You Do! demonstrates in (too?) lucid fashion.
Though the rank commercialization of what should be an artistic medium might prove grating, the movie’s very aware of how such cheap pandering can in fact facilitate profound connections between us and that piece of art. Similar to how the lyrical meaning of the song seems to change for the band based on the ever-evolving personal and professional contexts they’re performing it in, so too will such remembered songs stick AND adapt with us, the listeners. The tactics deployed to worm a song into our ear canals might be cheap, but they can remain lodged there forever. And art that clings to our psyches will, by definition, stay with us until our final days. As such, like all of our favorite works of art, as we change through life, so too will the personal meaning of these songs change for us, and tracking these changes can provide a pretty accurate picture of how we’ve changed from then to now.
In a way, it’s similar to a love interest you want to shake but can’t seem to, to such a degree that their memory stays with you forever, forever coloring your perspective.
Oh, and do you realize that’s kind of what the song’s partially about? It’s right there in the chorus, which I only realized after my 248,723,792,472,237th listen:
“I try and try to forget you girl
But it’s just so hard to do
Every time you do that thing you do”
Is the song referencing a girl? Or is it referencing itself? Or is it referencing the entire capitalist music industry? Or is it referencing all earworms?
How about: yes, all because the song does that thing it does, again and again and again and again and again.