Ten Science Songs That Are Kinda Meh (Part 1)

Well hello there! After spending two weeks and 3000 words praising various songs for getting science right (Part 1 here and Part 2 here), we’re now moving a step down the ladder to the decidedly mediocre. These are the songs that reference science and aren’t really wrong, but aren’t overly inspiring or interesting either.  While some of these are great songs, just know that through most of this my face resembles a bored professor teaching general science requirements to liberal arts major freshmen who didn’t figure out how to test out. For those of you never in that situation, it’s just an inner scream that looks like this:

The Math by Hilary Duff
Nominated Line:
 whole song

Bethany: Despite the promising title, this is a song that clearly exists because one of Hilary Duff’s songwriters had a crush on a guy who was smarter than her. She tries to explain love to him in terms of mathematics, but it’s the kind of math references anyone who’s passed 3rd grade would understand. Addition. Subtraction. Equal signs. THIS ISN’T GOING TO WORK HILARY. We math geeks love our references, but we like them at a level that requires more than a primary school education.

You can still turn this around though….do a follow up that references how much you’ve learned then say things like “You say it’s time to go, but with convolution time doesn’t matter”. That’ll get ’em.

Barring that, I can only say this: Why can’t you be more like that nice Josh Ritter fellow Ms Duff?

Ben: Bethany referenced Duff’s songwriters in her paragraph, which means I have to do the research into the recording of this Hilary Duff album, which was not the sort of thing I thought I signed up for.

A short history: “The Math” was recorded for the release of Hilary Duff’s first real pop album, the recording of which sounds like the sort of well-paying migraine you sign up for when you become a pop producer. Apparently, at the launch of this process, Duff was a Disney TV star who decided she wanted to become a singer because she saw pop musicians warming up before a show and it “looked fun.” A Disney executive signed her, had her start voice lessons, and launched a multi-million dollar recording session. Somewhere out there, Robert Johnson’s soul just moaned in eternal torment.

Recording was immediately troubled because Duff was “listening to a lot of Destiny’s Child at the time” (weren’t we all), so the songs had an “urban style” to them that apparently “didn’t strike a chord,” according to one of the producers. From what we know of Duff’s artistic range, I assume this is a breathtakingly dramatic understatement.

At this point, her producer asked her “what kind of music she would like to do,” which is not normally the sort of conversation one has halfway through a recording process. She mentioned that growing up, she’d “listened to a lot of rock music,” (I genuinely do not want to know who she means) and liked songs that had “a little bit more guitar in it.”

Enter Kara DioGuardi – yes, that Kara DioGuardi! Onetime American Idol judge/reluctant bikini model Kara DioGuardi! – who had written demos for a number of songs, including future Duff singles “Come Clean” and “Little Voice.” Duff recorded these as demos, and they were sent to the studio, along with “The Math,” which was not sung by Duff at all but by prolific songwriter Lauren Christy. The studio loved all three songs and the new direction, and Duff was forced to add all three to her new record.

Forced? Yes, evidently, Duff feels the same way about “The Math” that the rest of us do, calling it “her biggest mistake,” which is very strong language for someone who dated both Joel Madden and Aaron Carter. Of course, when you listen to the pop-guitar buzz and word vomit that makes up “The Math,” one understands exactly where she’s coming from.

Also, for our younger reader, to “star 69” someone meant to type that exact sequence into your phone’s touchtone pad, which would then make the landline you were on call the last person who had called you back. What a weird, old-timey thing to do! Anyway, it’s not sordid or anything. Hilary kept it clean.

Bethany: Whoa. I think you put more effort in to that part than went in to the entire song to begin with. Good show.

Rest my Chemistry by Interpol
Nominated Line: “I’m going to rest my chemistry”

Bethany: Okay, Ben’s going to have to explain this one to me. This song uses the word “chemistry” ten times and doesn’t say anything about the subject. In my world, that’s just name dropping.

Ben: As best I can tell, to “rest my chemistry” means to “not take any cocaine, at least right at the moment.” It’s like when celebrities go to rehab for “exhaustion.”

As Interpol songs go, this is fine, but it carries no weight next to, say, “Evil,” their hook-laden hit with the bizarre puppetry music video. Frankly, putting “Rest My Chemistry” in this group feels right – it’s a tune with a vague acknowledgement of the chemical makeup of the world around us, but without any actual, you know, science.

Bethany: Glad we’re on the same page here. B- to Interpol because I just don’t want to see them again next semester.

Ben: Boy, if retaking the course comes into consideration, that’s going to dramatically affect the scores the groups we’re covering in the sections to come. Unless the dean just happens to find some contraband in Thomas Dolby’s locker, of course…

She’s Electric by Oasis
Nominated line:
“She’s electric, can I be electric too?”

Bethany: Just so we all know I can criticize things I love, let’s talk about this song. Noel repeats over and over how electric this girl he likes is. This is all well and good, but then he starts wanting to be electric too. This clearly goes against all electrical safety precautions, where the goal is to not electrocute yourself along with the person you’re trying to help. It’s like he knows how it works, but like a 12 year old in his first hands on lab wants to do the exact wrong thing with the information.

On the other hand, this could be turned around with the right visuals. This could totally work in concert:

Except make it  more British-ey.

Ben: I don’t know what that visual is, but I found the perfect British person to design it.

He’s already interested in lightbulbs!

“She’s Electric” is full of bad ideas. This woman has a sister, and “God only knows how he missed her.” It seems exceptionally unwise to get involved in a relationship where you wish you’d had a go at her sister, but now it’s too late. What’s more, he doesn’t get along with her brother, who quite wisely doesn’t trust Noel, since he also has taken a fancy to their mother. Meanwhile, the girl in question is pregnant with someone else’s child, which wouldn’t be outrageously concerning except that he only mentions it in conjunction with the fact that she has a lot of cousins, making an uncomfortable inference about the perhaps-too-close relationships that hold this familial group together.

Most importantly, he’s not showing proper electrical safety, and that’s the most major concern. Noel, you know full well what’s going to happen if you try to end up “electric too.”


*Note: possibly not 100% scientifically accurate.

Noel, take my advice. Get out of there. She’s no good for you. This is a nightmare waiting to happen. But if you must, handle her carefully, and try to move her away from any electric current with a broom, like this:


Readers, if only we were all so wise.

Bethany: Ben, I see a future for you in gif-driven public safety educational videos. It’s a calling.

Ben: I probably can’t make a career out of it, but I’ll change my twitter bio anyway.

Man on the Moon by R.E.M.
Nominated line:
“Newton got beamed by the apple good”

Bethany: This line has always bothered me. Why is it there? It’s not interesting, it’s not inspired, it’s a scientific reference only in the loosest sense of the term. Isn’t this a song about Andy Kaufman? Why are we talking about Newton and apples? The story about how he discovered gravity is really famous and possibly apocryphal, but everyone knows this. What does it teach us? We get a complete biography of Kaufman in under 5 minutes and then a 5 second muttering about Newton and apples? Michael Stipe, you disappoint.

Ben: Boy, you were grouchy on this one. Until I fixed it, you’d managed to both get the name of the song wrong and misspell “R.E.M.” That’s some uncharacteristic negligence. Looks like it’s up to me to defend our favorite Georgian college-rock band.

It’s tough to make too much out of this one. “Man On The Moon” was the last song recorded for R.E.M.’s masterwork album Automatic For The People, and the lyrics of it came at the very last minute. The entire album had been finished and was to be sent for mastering the next morning.  They had recorded music for “Man On The Moon,” but the song was still without vocals, or indeed, lyrics. Michael Stipe, stymied by writer’s block for weeks, walked around the block, listening to the track, and decided to write the lyrics as a song about Andy Kaufman. The lyrics were written and the vocals recorded only a few hours later.

Or, at least, that’s what Michael Stipe says. Stipe, like Kaufman, was prone to inventing stories as a form of self-glorification, and enjoyed playing fast and loose with the truth. Much like Newton’s possible mythical apple, we will never know the veracity of the story.

In fact, that’s most likely the reference Stipe is making here: Newton’s apple, Moses bringing forth water from his stick, Cleopatra being bitten by an asp – are these historical events or falsehoods accepted as realities? Stipe even questions Kaufman’s own death – “here’s a truck stop instead of St. Peter’s” – a nod to how Kaufman’s propensity for taking a joke too far led to his fans never being quite able to accept that he was dead.

As usual, R.E.M.’s penchant to meander along line between cleverness and ambiguity is well covered over by their ear for melody, since this is a hall of fame pop song no matter how well you understand the lyrics. That baseline is an all-timer.

Bethany: Realizing I misspelled R.E.M. led to the sub-realization that their band name is a better scientific reference than this line.  Also, here’s the wrestling match from line two:

She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby
Nominated Line:
whole song

Bethany: Okay, if you thought I was grouchy about R.E.M., it’s nothing compared to my feelings about this Dolby song. Let me say this once, very clearly, so there’s no misunderstanding: THIS. IS. NOT. A. SCIENCE. SONG.

It’s not. It’s a high school kid reading his course schedule. It’s not fit to graduate, let alone be considered an anthem. This song is like a singer yelling “WHAT’S UP INSERT RELEVANT CITY NAME HERE” at a concert. There are subjects named, but no actual science….and yet because it says SCIENCE loudly and over and over, somehow it’s become part of the pantheon. Are we nerds so bad off that we will accept this kind of thing? Guys, we have to expect better than this. We’re worth it.

Ben: I was utterly unfamiliar with Mr. Dolby and his scientific affectations, and so watching the music video for this song was a bit of a rude awakening. This song is everything I dislike about pop music in the 80’s, from the off-puttingly banal Mad Lib lyricism, to the bewildering shouts of British television science enthusiast Magnus Pike, to (above all) the brain-curdling synth track, with its entirely electric violin sound fooling no one (Dolby at one point plays an actual violin in the video, and later rubs a bow across an actress halfheartedly painted to look like a violin. In neither action is he convincing).

What’s odd is that despite the song’s utter ineptitude at expressing coherent scientific thought, Thomas Dolby’s resume is somewhat reasonably accomplished. He’s an accomplished session musician, been the musical director at the TED Conference since 2001, and is now a professor of the arts at Johns Hopkins. However, it seems that rather than his hit single being the culmination of a lifetime understanding of science, his odd one-hit wonder led him to become the poster boy for science and music, and respectability followed.

The music video for this song – also featuring the truly bizarre Magnus Pike – is a mashup of every bit of awful 80’s-ness: an unappealing frontman in an unappealing outfit, frantic camera zooms, an attractive woman wearing glasses in “sexy scientist” vibe, a low angle shot of just a woman’s legs, the unjustified used of children dressed up as adults, and a film reference (the text slates seen in silent films) used with hammering clumsiness. The peak moment of this is one of the video’s final slates:

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 12.31.35 AM

Nerds of the world: you do not want this song representing you.

In my perusal of Mr. Dolby’s Wikipedia, I also found this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 12.34.38 AM

The only thing less surprising to me was discovering that this song went to number one in Canada. Stop playing into our conceptions of you, Canucks!

That’s all I’ve got this week. Bethany?

Bethany: Until next week and Part 2, I’ll just be here doing my nails.

Part 2 is up, read it here!

One thought on “Ten Science Songs That Are Kinda Meh (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Ten Science Songs That Are Kind of Meh (Part 2) | graph paper diaries

Comments are closed.