I Listened to "Uptown Funk" by Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson On Repeat Until the Line Between Listening and Not Listening to It Became Meaningless

Here are my notes from the next few weeks, as my life evolved into a movie for which the entire soundtrack was a single song.
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Publish date:
May 7, 2015
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music, pop culture, obsessive

The first time I heard the song “Uptown Funk,” I thought I had heard it before. Most songs need a “breaking-in” period, a few listens until you can settle into it, recall the tune on-demand, and greet it as a friend. But not "Uptown Funk." The melody, tone, all of it sounded so familiar, simultaneously distinct and generic, the prototypical catchy hit of the summer, born two seasons too soon. I had had this response once before, to “Blurred Lines,” which, when I first heard it playing from another room, made me assume the radio was tuned to an Oldies station.

The second time I heard "Uptown Funk," I wanted to hear it again. And much like eating a second cookie, having one more did nothing to dull the craving. I made a pact with myself: I would listen to the song as many times as I could handle, and chronicle the experience.

I’m no stranger to listening to songs on repeat. I’m a creature of habit, of habits. While I switch up what I do, what I’m switching is often one obsession for a new one, more than shuffling between activities of moderate frequency. I ate the same bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch every morning of middle school before turning on it in revulsion and eating Cocoa Pebbles for every breakfast before traveling to high school, where I, every day, made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Songs are no exception. Most of the songs I love are sharply defined to me by the time period I listened to them in, so many times did I replay them during the short burst of my first loving them. I’m just grateful and pleased to report that I don’t do this with people, at least not intentionally.

That fateful second listen, I stopped what I was doing and committed myself to the dance.

Half-attempting the moves of the music video, half-flailing in a heart healthy aerobic boogie, as is my usual dance style (a robot having a seizure, I always say), I jumped along, “Don’t believe me, just watch?” While I was only partially watching, I was definitely a believer.

When it was over, I pressed the unclosed-circle-with-an-arrow icon on the YouTube window and began again.

I danced for 9 minutes and 2 seconds that night, that is, two full listens. I felt a bit concerned by watching my life pass by in such obvious chunks, but strangely happy to be able to so thoroughly account for those minutes.

Needing to leave my house to attend my book club, I tuned my phone’s YouTube app to the video and walked out the door, a bounce in my step as I embarked on the dumbass journey of a lifetime.

Here are my notes from the next few weeks, as my life evolved into a movie for which the entire soundtrack was a single song. So a bit like Birdman, but my drums were Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, and a song with virtually only one verse.

Listen #3

It's great I can break down my life like this, into this new unit of measurement. “Lab assistant, will you please transfer 1 Uptown Funk into the pipet, please?” Well, really it’s of time, so I suppose it’s more like “Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred seconds of Uptown Funk.”

I haven’t set a goal for myself yet. I just need to get to a really high number, I think. Do I need a timeframe? How many times would I listen to this song incidentally, if I just hang out in a mall and don’t tune out the soundtrack pumped in? I’ll listen devotedly, at time when I otherwise wouldn’t, for as long as it takes, and see what happens.

My experiment designed in accordance with the strictest understanding of the scientific method, I arrived at my book club destination about halfway into my sixth listen.

Listen #4

This song is very demanding. “If you’re sexy, then flaunt it. Don’t brag about it, just show me.” Stop giving me all these assignments, Bruno. I thought I was supposed to just passively watch. Why do I have to be the one doing all this work? And what do you mean, “if you’re sexy, then flaunt it?” We are all sexy in our own ways, what is this conditional “if” business?

Listen #5

Hearing the line, “So hot, you make a dragon want to retire, man,” all I can think is, ugh, I wish dragons would retire. That would open up jobs held by those same, aging dragons who got their start during a better economy.

Listen #6

Why wouldn't I believe him? What is it that I wouldn’t believe? Try me.

Listen #7

This is the first time I tried to pair listening with doing anything else besides walking around -- going to try a spot of writing. Just background noise at this point, albeit a familiar, welcome one.

Listen #8

Okay, putting it on again totally pulled me out of what I was writing. I was powerless to not dance at least in the beginning, risking a jump at the first drop even though I wasn't wearing a bra and that can be painful.

Listen #9

Literally went and put on a sports bra to jump with impunity.

Listen #10

Got back to writing, thank God, though finally revealed what I have been up to here to another soul on this earth.

Friend texted back: "What is that song. Will listening to it noe." I should mention that he's recovering from surgery with the kindly assistance of a mass of painkillers, so really it's as if I've told no one at all. This remains my secret. Not shameful though. No, never that.

Listen #11

This listen is accompanying my reading a piece on Buzzfeed. It's like my senses are being assaulted by media engineered to be clickable and addictive, familiar yet exciting. Like how Doritos and Coke have just enough flavor components to keep you uncertain and unsatiated, coming back for more, but still taste familiar? Yeah, that is my life now.

Listen #12

I'm not sure I care anymore.

Oh, the beat just dropped. I take it all back.

Listen #13

I can hear my apartment’s super sweeping outside my door. I wonder what he's thinking. Probably that no one’s home and we accidentally left something on repeat. Or it's a varied enough song that he hasn't caught on that its all one track yet? Once in high school I listened to the same two TV On the Radio songs on loop for hours because I just couldn't tell there weren't any more than two.

Listen #14

Wow, for just a moment from 3:25 - 3:28, you can hear the boo doo boo funk bass of the Seinfeld scene transition theme.

Listen #16

For these listens, I was in the shower. Is my shower too long? It’s 3 Uptown Funks. What a personal thing to share, the length of one’s shower.

Listen #17

It’s at this point that YouTube tried to recommend a song by The Decemberists to me. They must be really concerned about my well being to intervene with such a radical departure.

Listen #18

Back to Spotify Web Player. The irony of what I have been working on while listening to this just hit me. Doing research on behavioral addictions, the tab open next to Spotify is titled, “Binge-watching.” When will the medical community finally address the scourge of binge-listening plaguing our society?

Listen #20

That line about the dragons wanting to retire? That’s my personal line now. It’s the one flash of wit in this song. The only line you could imagine was written by someone brilliant, like Oscar Wilde, or Kanye.

Didn’t even notice when the song ended.

Listen #21

In the scene that’s even more Michael Jackson than the rest, Carla Bruno-Markozy moonwalks in between three other men doing equally interesting, yet unique walks. Who choreographed each one of the guys’ distinctive funky walks? There was a Ministry of, wasn’t there?

Listen #22

This actually is too distracting a song for creative writing, it turns out. Just distracting enough for nonfiction research and editing, but you have to draw the line somewhere and apparently my powers of attention are laying it down here.

Listen #23

Put it on just for some nice background music to clean my room a bit.

Is it possible not to mouth along the lines, "if you [sic] sexy, then flaunt it" while making saucy faces? Modern medicine holds no cure that I know of.

Listen #25

I have to go to the bathroom. Turning up the volume to hear it from there.

Listen #26

For a moment in the bathroom I couldn't hear it. My thoughts took over and suddenly I was living in a world without "Uptown Funk" playing. It felt oddly natural.

Listens #27-29

My shower length apparently is pretty consistent, because once again, 3 Uptown Funks and I’m as clean as I’m gonna get.

Listen #30

It took thirty listens, but finally it hits me. The reason this song sounds so familiar is that it IS Rapper's Delight. Try it out. Sing them to yourself and become an "Uptown Funk" truther: “Hip hop, hip hop and you don't stop.” “Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up.”

Listens #35-38

By this point, "Uptown Funk" has stopped being something I’m actively doing to myself, and something I just wait for the world to send my way.

Listen 35: My roommate put it on. Listen 36: a friend sent me a version made like an audio ransom note of Obama saying every word of the song mashed into an approximation of the original (the line about dragons was conspicuously absent; I guess it was too impossible to find footage of Obama waxing poetic with a metaphor of national defense measures using dragons. Also, they used a word that was not quite “funk,” that worked, but would never fool a Mars/Ronson scholar such as myself. I wonder what it was?) Listen 37: It came on in a store as I browsed. Listen 38: at the gym as I was leaving (I paused for a moment and wondered whether I was obliged to stop and hear it through its end? But did not).

I’d stopped coming home and getting to business, Spotify and YouTube tabs open. By now my listening is down to just incidental, drive-by listens. When they played it in Zumba class, I found I couldn’t bear to dance the pre-arranged piece the instructor had for us; instead, alone in the back of the class, careful not to disrupt anyone even if I couldn’t entirely avoid being noticed, I danced out my own routine, made up on the spot but informed by what felt like a million listens. I put what turned out to be my all into it, and had to leave the class immediately after, I had so thoroughly tired myself out, to the amusement of a gym custodian who peered into the room just a bit longer than he might have had there not been an outlier dancer going rogue in the back of the room.

Listens #39-53

Around listen 39, the line between listening to and not listening to "Uptown Funk" became as blurred as a Robin Thicke coloring book. I don’t even need to put it on anymore; "Uptown Funk" had become the sound of my internal monologue, a constant background to my thoughts. Walking, working out, making out, talking with people, my head was piping in the funk. Had it funked me up?

I was making references to lyrics as if they were commonly known quotes from Shakespeare, wondering why Mark Ronson never stands up or smiles for the duration of the video, trying to get my friends to discuss the layered racial and socioeconomic implications of calling this “Julio” to “get the stretch,” and searching vintage stores for my own pink blazer, just like Bruno's. Somehow, I never reached "Uptown Funk" overload, a point I've crossed before with certain songs that I love a little too hard, or the radio binges on a bit too enthusiastically, a point you know you've crossed when you can no longer even hear the song any more, it melts into just noise, or its disparate sounds elements, or you just want to scream for it to stop playing any time it starts.

I attribute this to the particular, peculiar magic of "Uptown Funk," the secret sauce (combine every funk piece of the last quarter century with Michael Jackson and set it to a beat you could write Morse Code to) that has pushed it nearly past 600 million listens on YouTube. Perhaps it's that universality of it that keeps it fresh, constantly rejuvenated through its own Botox of never quite making a firm stand on what, when, or where it is? It can be all things to all people, or at least all sounds to one person.

It does now, however, puzzle me every time a friend turned it on -- "Another listen? Oh, I forgot, you don't have to listen to this. You just WANT to. It's just a song to you." And I've become weirdly possessive over something that's been listened to over 600 million times through YouTube alone, most of which, despite my best efforts, were not by me.

Somehow, by inviting "Uptown Funk" into my eardrums, my head, my vocal chords, and my life, I had taken this piece of mass popular culture and made it a part of my brain. Don't believe me? Just watch.