A couple of weeks ago I was at (the incredibly cumbersomely named) "Dreamworks Tours Shrek's Adventure! London" on the South Bank and saw what struck me as a probable human rights violation.
I'd paused in the gift shop to reply to a couple of emails on my phone. It was difficult to concentrate while I did this, because the song "I'm a Believer" by Smash Mouth was playing just loudly enough that it was impossible to ignore.
After maybe four minutes I realised the song was still playing. Something that would only have been possible if they were repeating the song.
But no, I thought. That's not possible. People work in this room. Capitalism is evil, duh, but it's not force-workers-to-listen-to-"I'm-a-Believer"-by-Smash-Mouth-for-an-entire-shift evil. There's no way.
I waited for the song to finish. It faded out.
And then: "D-DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO! I THOUGHT LOVE WAS ONLY TRUE IN FAIRY TALES—"
I went over to one of the women working there.
"Is this the only song that plays in here?" I asked.
"Does it not drive you insane?"
"I'm new, so I'm OK. But she hates it," she said, gesturing to a coworker.
"Jesus," I said to the other woman, as the song launched into its funky surf bass breakdown. "Is it unbearable? Or do you just tune it out?"
"I tune it out," she said, with a smile.
But it was the kind of smile that only involved her mouth. The skin around her eyes didn't budge. The skin around her eyes told me that, if she weren't at work, and I weren't a stranger who might potentially be a mystery shopper or a member of Smash Mouth, the answer would be very different. Because how could it not be different?
Since that woman is trapped in a system that does not allow her to describe how annoying it is to have to listen to the song "I'm a Believer" by Smash Mouth for eight hours a day, I decided to try doing it myself for a work week. As a show of solidarity with the workers. To give them a voice. And also because I have to write a certain number of articles a month in order to make rent, and VICE has to run a certain number of articles a day, and this seemed like a reasonable enough idea to everyone, I guess.
First on my agenda was figuring out whether something like this would, as I'd initially suspected, constitute a human rights violation.
Music has long been used as a method of torture. The US used it on detainees during the War on Terror, blasting them with songs that would either annoy them ("The Real Slim Shady", "I Love You" by Barney the Dinosaur) or offend their conservative religious beliefs ("Dirrty", some death metal song called 'Fuck Your God"). In Chile, under Pinochet, jailers harassed prisoners by playing music including Julio Iglesias at high volume for days at a time. During the Waco siege in the 1990s, the FBI tried to drive the Branch Davidians out of their compound by blasting "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" out of loudspeakers, etc., etc.
Music, when used as a weapon, can have devastating psychological effects on people, including hallucinations, disorientation, physical illness and depression.
To get more clarity on whether hearing "I'm a Believer" for eight hours a day would count as torture, I reached out to an expert in the field. She emailed back, declining my interview request and pointing out that, unlike the people she studies (i.e. people who have been literally tortured), I have control over my circumstances. I sat staring at my screen for almost the length of an entire "I'm a Believer", soaking in the fact that I'd just sent an email about the Shrek soundtrack to an intellectual heavyweight who has done actual studies on the effects of music on, like, people in Auschwitz. I felt sick.
I went into a full on dread spiral. The fact I was hearing the song for maybe the hundredth time that day when I read the email probably didn't help things, I suppose.
I'm writing this at the end of my "I'm a Believer" week and, honestly, don't really have anything to say about the experience. Listening to it was really annoying, yes. Truly one of the most annoying things I've ever done. But I could have told you that without listening to it for 40 hours.
I guess if I'd been listening to it in a shipping container in the Arabian Desert, with a bag over my head, and I wasn't sure if I was ever going to see my family again, and I was a member of a religion whose members find the music of Smash Mouth to be deeply offensive, the situation might be interesting enough to report on.
But I wasn't. I was sitting on my couch. And if the people working in the Shrek shop are anything like I was when I worked retail, they're probably hearing it while sneakily using their phone under the counter, or hiding out in the stockroom eating Shrek-shaped chocolates they have no intention of paying for.
Like every annoying thing I've done for every job I've ever had, the song just sort of faded into the background of my day, becoming a low level hum of stress. Like having to save my work-related receipts in a little folder, or sending dozens of "just following up on this?" emails that get ignored. Jobs are boring! This isn't even the first time I've had an annoying sound loop playing while I worked. I can still lip sync to the "Brother Bear" trailer because I heard it on the Disney Store's in-store TVs so many times when I worked there.
I suppose the big difference between this week and any other week filled with annoying work shit is that the song served as a constant, inescapable reminder of how pointless all this is.
The only reasons this article exists are: 1) so VICE will have something to post on its homepage, and 2) so I can get paid for writing it. Though, I suppose you've made it this far, so maybe you need pointless content to distract you from your own shitty job. There's enough of it out there to suggest that people genuinely enjoy this stuff.
I'm running with this, honestly-fairly-cringeworthy, concept for the sake of keeping the endless cycle of online content in motion. Because if I contribute to it, like, seven times a month, I can just about afford to be alive.
As has been pointed out many times elsewhere, to work in journalism in 2019 is to take a vow of poverty. Which is totally worthy and noble if you're one of the Miami Herald reporters who took down Jeffrey Epstein, or one of the people who does important work for this publication, breaking stories on the terrifying ways that giant corporations are misusing our data or ruining lives, or campaigning on issues that have a real-world effect. But I'm in my thirties, writing 1,500 words about a song from Shrek.
Usually, when the crushing pointlessness of the online content system starts to weigh down on me, I can disconnect myself from reality for a minute and daydream about pivoting to, I don't know, literally any other job. But, this last week, if I allowed my mind to wander for even a single second, the song would remind me that I had to write this article. To quote Smash Mouth quoting the Monkees quoting Neil Diamond, "DISAPPOINTMEN’ HAWNTED AWL MA DUHREAMS."
I'm not even the first person to shit out a piece of content on this topic. It was briefly a YouTube trend to listen to the same song for 24 hours, and a couple of BuzzFeed writers did a thing in 2016 where they listened to "Breakfast At Tiffany's" for five hours.
I read / watched a bunch of this stuff in the process of writing this to see how anyone could possibly squeeze anything interesting out of something so breathtakingly pointless. "I'm starting to feel a little confused," wrote one of the BuzzFeed writers in their post. "Is my name Tiffany? I've started calling other people Tiffany. Everyone is Tiffany. We are all Tiffany," they added, before describing a breakdown they had while listening to the song in a meeting. Which… I think we can all agree probably didn't happen? I’m sure their experience was similar to mine. They were just kind of annoyed and then had to exaggerate that into content.
I'm not faulting them for it; we've all got to make a living. Until fairly recently, I probably would've done the same thing. I actually bought a Shrek mug so I could take a photo of myself drinking out of it, making one of those "I'M LOSING MY MIIIIIND" faces that people do in YouTube thumbnails to use as the lede image on this post. But the thought of actually going through with it made my internal organs ache. Again, I am in my thirties. (UPDATE: THE EDITOR OF THIS PIECE HAS ASKED THAT I, A PERSON IN MY THIRTIES, TAKE A PHOTO OF MYSELF WITH THE SHREK MUG. I WASN’T EVEN LISTENING TO SMASH MOUTH WHEN I TOOK IT.)
There was only one moment during my entire week when I had any kind of noteworthy emotional reaction to the song. I'd finished doing my work for the day and ran a bath. Immediately after lowering myself into it, I realised I'd left the song playing in the next room, loud enough to still be audible. I did one of those exasperated eye rubs where you sigh and the sigh turns into a whispered, "Fuck." But that's it. I'm sure you had a similar moment in your week, when the annoying shit you're able to withstand for the sake of earning some money bled into your Me Time.
Until we seize the means of production or whatever, work will continue to be a series of endurance tests, little pieces of our sanity sacrificed for the sake of staving off homelessness for another month.
Or, IDK, maybe I'll feel a bit better about everything when I haven't just spent a week listening to the same Smash Mouth song on repeat.