The age of algorithms has its casualties, especially when it comes to music. As fewer and fewer of us tune into FM radio or rifle through our CD wallets in favor of remaining within the safe confines of our Spotify libraries, the likelihood of us stumbling upon a lesser-known musical memento of times past becomes slimmer and slimmer.
I'm not talking about the classic Eagles song your dad always cranked in the garage, or just-barely-past-their-expiration-date smashes, or pop punk albums you once cherished; I'm talking about the songs that you never chose to play, but that wormed into your head anyway. These were the ones that made their way into your amygdala through high school dances, or placement in a particularly compelling scene of a teen soap, or in my case, as a 33-year-old who grew up in the Bay Area, the ones that I blared from my boombox while listening to Live 105 and Alice 97. I may not remember jack from pre-calculus, but these minor hits—songs like "Got You Where I Want You" and "Bound for the Floor" and "Little Black Backpack"—remain so firmly ingrained in my bones that I feel like I could hum them even if I was riddled with dementia like the old lady in The Notebook.
Our brains are incredibly good at archiving the music of our younger years, even when we haven't heard a particular song in decades. This is the phenomenon that takes center stage in the newest episode of über-popular podcast Reply All, one titled "The Case of the Missing Hit," a story that I have—and many others—haven't been able to stop thinking about since it was released on March 5.
In the episode, 38-year-old filmmaker Tyler Gillett contacts the show's hosts with a dilemma: He has near-perfect recall of a late-90s pop-rock song that sounds kind of like the Barenaked Ladies, kind of like U2—one with that trademark goofy-grinned boppiness of the big-label hits of the late Clinton years. But he quickly realizes that not only does his wife have no memory of the song whatsoever; neither does anyone else, including the world's greatest detective, Google dot com. As his brain continues to cruelly loop the song on endless repeat, he becomes increasingly frantic to identify it; utterly obsessed, he even records his own version of it on his computer in hopes of using an app to identify it. Finally, he turns to the show's hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, for help, and as more and more people are looped in to help Gillett, things only get more complicated. There are moments when he's forced to consider that he's somehow concocted the song himself, even though he can remember curiously specific details such as its flute intro, guitar solo, and lyrics about "Bettie Page books" and "a ticket to a Holyfield ringside."
What ensues is a journey through space and time that I'd rather you hear for yourself, since its conclusion is so strangely satisfying that it may or may not have made me cry as I listened to the final moments of the episode on a Bluetooth speaker in my bathtub (and—spoilers behind this click—I wasn't the only one). It's an incredible investigation of the peculiar quirks of late-90s music and the underbelly of the record industry, and also a touching meditation on how our memory clings to little tchotchkes of culture, meticulously archiving so much that we don't realize. And sometimes, our minds just won't let something go, whether we asked it to or not.
The exasperation of searching for something buried deeply in an obscure corner of your memory is a universal experience; the itch is only magnified by not being able to find a single shred of evidence of the song or thing in the greatest library of our collective society: the internet. Now that we're able to quickly find answers to virtually any query on the tiny computers in our pockets, the lack of instant gratification can drive us mad. There's an entire subreddit called /r/TipOfMyTongue dedicated to helping people through this frustrating feeling; it has more than a million members, and it's filled with posts from Redditors pleading for help naming lost made-for-TV movies of the 2000s based on an amorphous description of a single scene, or children's books of which they can only fuzzily recall the cover illustrations. If the Reply All producers turned to this subreddit, it may have been able to help them—although, of course, the episode would not have been so suspenseful.
I've had the very same problem as Gillett several times, most memorably about three years ago when I had a torturous, multi-day personal quest to find a lesser-known new wave hit of the 80s that I heard in a bar amid the din of pinball and clinking glasses, rendering it un-Shazam-able. Because I share the "pure O" described in the episode—a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder characterized not by compulsive washing and locking, but by utter fixation and intrusive thoughts about things that are often very stupid—I was tormented by my mind blaring a snippet of the song on repeat all day and all night, with no relief in sight. The lyrics were relatively generic: "We'll love until tomorrow… [something something]… and what you ask I'll do / these days I'm just like you." Like the song described in Reply All, it's both reminiscent of other big artists of its time—a little bit Big Country, a little bit Echo and the Bunnymen—and hopelessly obscure. After hours of trial-and-error searches, scrolling through blogs in vain, and feeling like I was going to be institutionalized over this largely unimportant and frankly mediocre 80s song, I finally found it, a moment that I can only describe as revelatory. The song is called "Just Like You," it's by a band called Red Rockers, and I'm still not sure what the exact lyrics are; they don't exist anywhere on the internet that I can find, despite the fact that Red Rockers were once big enough to tour with U2. Even the most popular YouTube video of the song has just 1,001 views as of this writing. Not very many people remember it, but thank god a handful of people do. I have no idea why it was playing in that bar—it's not really that great of a song?—but all I can tell you is that after getting to the bottom of it, I felt much better.
In addition to the strange habits of how we form and store memories, "The Case of the Missing Hit" beautifully unpacks the complicated final years of the CD-driven record industry, and that gold rush for commercially appealing music that could be embraced by fans of both pop and "alternative rock." Because Gillett is just five years older than me and I'm a 90s-trash-music connoisseur, I immediately thought I would recognize the song when I found out the premise of the episode. (I didn't, and I feel pretty confident that you won't, either.) But as it happens, the late 90s have a particularly big hole in their pocket that has allowed certain songs to simply slip into the ether. Maybe your radio-hit memories aren't of crappy alt-pop, but the many R&B groups who never found a real home on a major label, or the two-hit wonders who longed to be big in the Euro-club scene but never quite made it. Every genre was flooded with artists hoping for a piece of the record-industry pie when there was still so much pie to be had.
Now, in 2020, we're on an awkward precipice of finally having enough distance in the rear view to piece together the lasting cultural impact of that era. We may remember the crazy, corny lyrical one-liners from Barenaked Ladies and Blessid Union of Souls, but how they'll go down in the books remains oddly uncertain—let alone the legacies of the artists who opened for them. Were they good? Were they bad? Does it matter, as long as someone remembers them?
Without our collective dependence on the radio, we no longer share the process of falling in love with pop songs by chance and sheer familiarity. But no matter what your station of choice was, you know that somewhere out there, others were listening, too.
Follow Hilary Pollack on Twitter.