Back pages: Ooops I contracted a meme
June 25, 2010, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson perform his “Thousand years of popular music” set as part of the Meltdown Festival on the South Bank. It’s not giving away too big a secret to reveal that it ends with this highly excellent Britney Spears cover.

As a result of this exposure, I found that the song kept coming back to me in odd moments as I set off on my subsequent travels (of which more will be blogged shortly). This prompted a memory of an earlier piece, written for Newsweek eight years ago, which I thought I’d paste here for whatever entertainment it brings.


Silly Ideas Are Attacking My Brain

I woke up this morning and, regrettably, I didn’t have the blues. Instead I had a bit of Britney Spears. Many people may enjoy thinking of Ms. Spears as they drift into the arms of Morpheus. Waking up with her, though, is disconcerting. The hook line to “Oops… I Did It Again”–a song only the deaf can avoid–was going round in my head before I’d had anything resembling a coherent thought. Indeed, it delayed the process considerably. I feel debilitated, and I’m thinking I might sue. While I’m at it, I may also lay into Pete Bellotte, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer for “Love to Love You Baby.” This tune is currently being heard in a Diet Coke ad in which tediously pretty people make eyes at each other while the magnificently hangdog Wolf Saxon is scandalously neglected. That said, I may sue Wolf Saxon, too, for having such an unfeasibly memorable name. These people are contaminating my mind.

Referring to pollen drifting on a summer breeze as “contamination” is one of the great rhetorical successes of the campaign against genetically modified crops. Such success one can only applaud and emulate. And so I am going to fight memetic contamination–the careless, even wanton, introduction of memes into the environment.

“Meme” is a term coined by Richard Dawkins for bits of information that reproduce themselves in human society (and don’t think he’s not on my litigation list, too). Dawkins suggested that the existence of such self-replicating ideas might explain various aspects of human culture. It sounds academic, but think it through. A meme gets into your head and rearranges your brain patterns in such a way that you remember it. I don’t know exactly how this happens; no one really understands how memory works on this level. But I’m sure I can get expert witnesses to say that somehow my brain is being physically rebuilt. Cells are growing new synapses. And new growth, as we know, entails a real risk of cancer. (Memes passed down mobile phones? Don’t get me started.)

All sorts of ideas pass from brain to brain, but most do so sloppily, and by the time they’ve gone through a few brains their original meaning is often lost. This is why the most prolific verbal memes tend to avoid all cognitive entanglements and stay meaningless. “Compassionate conservatism” springs to mind. These memorable meaningless phrases, though, along with trivia you just can’t forget, constitute a sort of theft through the opportunity costs they impose. The neurons involved in remembering Mr. Saxon’s striking, but ultimately unhelpful, name are unavailable for the storage of more useful information, such as whether 1990 Burgundies were better than the ’89s or vice versa. In fact, carefully checking the grounds for my lawsuit, I find that the neurons commandeered by Mr. Saxon’s name are not just wasted but wrong: he’s Rolf, not Wolf. Now I’m going to remember both names and never be quite sure which is right. What’s more, in the course of my research I have also been burdened with the unforgettable knowledge that he narrates “Teletubbies.” More neurons lost.

But this is small beer compared with the damage done by music. Musical memes don’t just take up psychic storage space. They invade our consciousness, traipsing round and round unbearably–at which point there’s a risk that people will start humming or even burst into song. This isn’t an accident: this is what they’re designed for. Memes that can make you hum–the theme music to “Raising Arizona” comes to mind–survive and prosper, as do viruses that make people cough and sneeze as a way of leaping from host to host. Idle unguarded singing is the mucous mist by which musical memes spread from mind to mind.

Even I would not sue someone for humming in the street (though I would think decorum and mental sanitation would suggest the use of a heavy, muffling handkerchief). But this ancient mechanism for the spread of sound is now subverted by the evil demands of big business. Rupert Murdoch and his conglomerated cohorts churn out this pollution on an industrial scale. They boast of their product’s catchiness as if they were researchers of biological warfare. Which is why I hope you’ll join me in the class action which will make these pop pushers bleed until they wish they had gone into the tobacco business.

There’s just one problem. If I’m right, and some of my neurons are storing snatches of Britney, then perhaps I should keep quiet about it. After all, I never bought the stuff–but it’s someone else’s intellectual property as surely as a Napstered MP3. Worse, I can’t get rid of it by wiping the disk clean—it’s hard-wired in my cortex. Maybe Britney can sue me–along with everyone else whose hard work and talent and memorable face and stupid name I have salted away without paying for it. Maybe they’ll sue me for all those patented genes I’m using without a license fee, too. And I’m sure they’ll have better lawyers than I.

Information, infection and ownership are all dangerous ideas. Please forget that you read this article.


Update: And here’s a bonus Britney Spears cover


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