Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Bonnie Tyler Effect

In a previous post, in which I questioned the contributions of two over-rated and talent-free artists, I also made the following remark: "You don't listen to Stockhausen's Momente or Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and sit there scratching your head, trying to decide whether or not you like it -- you either like it or you don't, and you know immediately."

Although undeniably true, that statement shouldn't be misinterpreted to mean that your first impression of any musical composition will be your only impression. The music industry is well-aware of this, and they know that one of the easiest ways they can get us to like a particular song is to play it so often that we can't get it out of our heads. This is what gave rise to the payola scandals of decades past, as well as the payola scandals of today.

This goes against the old adage that "familiarity breeds contempt," of course, but I think that adage was in reference to people, not to music. And an event from my own personal experience validates what the music industry has always known: The more we hear a song, the more likely we are to want to go out and buy a copy of it. It doesn't even matter what the song is. I call this the Bonnie Tyler Effect.

In the early '80s, a gym I used to work out at always kept the radio on. They didn't play it so loud that you couldn't hear yourself grunt and sweat -- it was just background music, but one of the popular songs of the time was Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart.

If you've never heard of that song, don't worry about it. All you need to know is that I really hated it. It was sappy, it was over-produced, and it was just plain annoying. Every day when I went to the gym, I hoped that during the hour or so that I spent there, the radio station would find enough other songs to play, but it never quite worked out that way. They always found the time to play Total Eclipse of the Heart.

So I heard that song practically every day, and after a month or so, I actually started to like it. The chorus was sort of catchy -- so catchy, as a matter of fact, that it made me overlook how bad the rest of the song was. I even went out and bought the single. [Historical note: In the days before CDs, you could buy a 45 rpm vinyl record, with one song on each side. These were referred to as "singles" although they probably should have been referred to as "doubles."]

Anyway, just to emphasize what an unusual purchase this was for me, I have to mention that my musical tastes have always run pretty far from the mainstream -- so far, in fact, that a lot of my friends didn't even regard the stuff I listened to as music and they wouldn't allow me to play it in their presence. As a matter of fact, some of my records even I wouldn't listen to.

But the Bonnie Tyler single was a different story. It was as mainstream as anything can possibly be, but somehow it got its hooks into me. I won't say I played it a lot, but I'm sure I got my money's worth.

Of course, time marched on, and eventually they stopped playing the song on the radio, and I stopped playing it at home. And decades later, even though I hadn't heard it in over twenty years, I still remembered it as a pretty decent little song. But in the late '90s, when peer-to-peer file sharing was first becoming popular, I downloaded a copy, for reasons that I can't even explain to myself. And the first time I listened to it, I remembered why I used to hate it so much.

So that's the subtle power of repeated exposure: It can make you like things that you'd normally hate. I still have the single, by the way, but I don't listen to it anymore. Maybe it'll be a collector's item one day.

I still have my gym membership as well, even though I haven't gone there in years. (You don't need to know why, but it isn't for the reasons most people stop going to gyms.) So I still get mail from them, and in their latest letter, they mentioned the millions of dollars they've invested in new equipment, remodeling, and "new audio-visual entertainment."

Well, it's nice to know where my membership dues are going, but the part about "new audio-visual entertainment" worries me a little. I know from friends of mine that just about every gym on the planet has a few televisions that are always left on while the gym is open. I didn't really mind the radio twenty-five years ago -- as I said, it was mostly background music -- but I have to admit that the thought of being forced to watch some idiotic sitcom or some idiotic newscast while I'm working out is a little bit scary. Somehow, it seems like strengthening your body while weakening your mind can't be very good for you. And as a blatantly sexist aside, there were always a lot of women who worked out at my gym, and some of them were pretty hot. I'd much rather look at women like that than at some television show. It doesn't even matter what show it is.

And here's another interesting little aside. I'm a charter member of my gym, and one of the promises they made to the charter members was that they would never increase our membership dues. But this is a promise they've only been able to keep by changing the membership terms. My dues haven't gone up, but a few years ago they added a "towel fee," which does seem to increase each year. That was pretty sneaky, but it's nowhere near as bad as what they're doing this year. This year they're eliminating core services so they can sell them back to us for an additional fee. My membership used to entitle me to visit any of their dozen or so locations, but now I can work out only at the club I joined at, unless I want to upgrade my membership and more than double my yearly dues.

I think that's a pretty underhanded way of doing things, but it really doesn't matter to me, since I never go there anyway. As a matter of fact, every year, I tell myself that I'm not going to renew my membership. But then some perky young woman from the membership department calls me up and tells me in her bubbly voice what a great deal I have, and that if I let my membership lapse, it will cost me a lot more than what I'm currently paying if I ever want to join again. So I always renew, and I always tell myself that maybe I should start going to the gym again, and I always find more important things to do instead.

But this year may be different. A friend of mine recently gave me one of those all-in-one home gyms. He'd had it for over a decade, but for the last few years it was disassembled and sitting in his garage, taking up space and forcing him to park his car on the driveway. He told me it wasn't top-of-the-line equipment, but I didn't mind, especially since it was free. I've started using it, and it gives you a pretty good workout. I don't think it lets me do everything I used to do at the gym, but I don't even remember everything I used to do at the gym, so I can't really complain. And even though I have a stereo and a television in the same room as the home gym, I usually leave them turned off when I'm working out. That's because sometimes I prefer silence, by the way -- not because I'm worried about falling victim to the Bonnie Tyler Effect again. Besides, I heard that it's like Chicken Pox or Scarlet Fever -- you get it once, and then you're pretty much immune to it for the rest of your life.