Repeat offenders: what is the most overplayed song?

It has to be an omnipresent, year-round stinker. So which is it?

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it

First, some housekeeping: the most overplayed song is not simply the one that has been played the most. In terms of Spotify streams, that would make it Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, with 2.8bn listens. On YouTube, it’s Baby Shark Dance with 8.5bn views, because of course it is. Though you may rather pour molten sugar into your ears than subject yourself to these rhythmic filibusters, they are not, by definition, overplayed. Each of those streams was presumably intentional, undertaken by people who wished to endure them. If one of those songs happens to auto-play on your phone, you can turn it off. Or spray-paint it silver and leave it outside for the magpies. It’s completely up to you.

It is only when personal agency is removed that a song truly becomes a problem. That’s why every single Christmas becomes a test of one’s ability not to burst into tears upon hearing the first chimes of Fairytale of New York. This is the very essence of the overplayed song: Fairytale is fantastic – most overplayed songs were, once – but there comes a point, around 20 December, when you’re wondering if this might be the “singing Galway Baaaay” that finally tips you over the edge. The overplayed song is an assault. Every single Christmas tune, with the exception of River by Joni Mitchell, most certainly qualifies.

So does its good-song-made-bad-by-exposure credentials make Fairytale of New York the most overplayed? Well, no, for two reasons: as one of the less objectionable Christmas songs, it spares you from the double-pronged jumper-wallop of Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney, meaning when it comes on it is, occasionally, welcome. And Christmas songs are also only an issue for one, admittedly horrendous, month per year. The true overplay offenders are the evergreen irritants, ready to ruin your day if you happen to wander into the wrong shop at the wrong time, or dare to turn on commercial radio, rain or shine. You know the ones. Those ones.

Get Lucky. Hotel California. Smells Like Teen Spirit. 9 to 5. Sex on Fire. My Heart Will Go On. Livin’ on a Prayer. Wonderwall. Don’t Stop Me Now. Everyone has their own playlist of ignominy, and yours may feature none of the above. It is, obviously, very subjective. There is one, though, that is – empirically – the most egregious offender of them all. There it is, on the radio. In the supermarket. In the pub. The office. In a cab. Thrumming through your neighbours’ wall. In the background on reality shows, dramas, soaps, documentaries. Blasted out at every party or wedding you’ll attend for the rest of your life.

Even as a relatively recent release, last month saw it set a new record as the longest-running chart hit in history, spending 260 weeks in the Top 100. It came out in 2004, and it’s … still … just … on, all the time, everywhere, there’s no escape. Nations will fall, oceans will rise, the sun will scorch the ochre Earth and, after it all, you’ll be genuflecting before a knackered Statue of Liberty, loincloth barely obfuscating your nethers, and that’s when you’ll hear it. That twangy, trebly guitar, followed by: “Coming out of my cage, and I’ve been doing just fine!”

It’s Mr sodding Brightside. Damn you, the Killers! God damn you all to hell!


Luke Holland

The GuardianTramp

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