To be specific, the sharpest skewer on the pop charts this year, hands down, is that Spanish-language masterpiece of fascinating repulsion "Gasolina" by Daddy Yankee. If you haven't heard it, imagine everything that white people of a certain age think they hate about hip-hop rolled into one needle-filled tamale: some dude yelling in a language you don't quite understand -- in this case Spanish (note to Spanish speakers: imagine it in Arabic) -- impassive, Talking Tina-doll backup singers; synth beats on steroids; and the jackhammer repetition of a single dumb phrase: Dame más gasolina!
Would I download it and besmirch a virtual record collection of such ecumenical class that it contains both Joni Mitchell and the esteemed Screaming Broccoli? Quién, yo? Ciertamente no! But every time I hear "Gasolina," I am unable to flip the station until the song's lacerating final note. Even as I write this, "Gasolina" may be on the way to becoming this year's "Macarena," having crashed both the Latin and mainstream pop charts. Lest we call it a fluke, here's a handy chronology of other sharply painful tunes that have hooked the American public by the ear.
"My Mammy" -- Al Jolson, 1946
The typical issue with this one, of course, is the casual racism. But that's not the sick fascination here, and neither is it the old-fashioned belted-out vocals; rather, it's the quavering, quivering repetition of the word mammy.
"Big Girls Don't Cry" -- the Four Seasons, 1962
Ah, where to start with this oldie-but-baddy. Those screeching harmonies, the whitest of doo-wop, resurrected 20 years later in Billy Joel's tribute, "Uptown Girl." And best and worst of all is the nonsensical, rhyming rejoinder That's just an alibi. Amazing: Italian kids from Newark, New Jersey, raised when Sam Spade was ubiquitous, who didn't know the meaning of the word alibi.
"In The Summertime" -- Mungo Jerry, 1970
Washboards and jugs having made a short-lived comeback, this British quartet was the Lovin' Spoonful's evil twin. Mungo's honking ode to hippie misogyny (If her daddy's poor, then just do watcha feel) sold 16 million copies.
"Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" -- Rod Stewart, 1978
Starting the '70s as a soulful folk-rock genius and ending the decade by hawking this audio version of his own ass, at least Rod couldn't be accused of mere mediocrity. Disco caused its share of migraines, but rarely with such coke-fueled audacity.
"Insane in the Brain" -- Cypress Hill, 1993
This one gets extra points for providing a generation of third-graders with an infectiously nasal catchphrase to chant all day long. Just as hip-hop's political undertones have become received wisdom, a ditty about guns and pot and the gleeful effects of having no brain tended to break the spell -- complete with a desiccated Los Angeles version of Public Enemy's noise.
Of course, we could go on; there's never been a shortage of irritating pop hits. But the popularity of tunes as piercing as these might have less to do with poor musical taste than with some primordial quirk in our brains. Maybe it's an impulse our earliest ancestors learned among the fauna, watching some snorting, gesticulating fiasco of evolution, some beast so grotesque that it had to be kept in check until it made a hobbling exit behind the trees. In short, it's the kind of thing you'd keep looking at even after it poked you in the eye.