Many people are drawn to creepy things. I don’t mean the horrific, not bugs and brains and guts. I mean a gentle unease, an anxious anticipation, a sense that things are not quite right. I mean clowns, and graveyards, and long hallways with flickering lights and no people. There is an art to creating creepy things, and much art is creepy.
Take the song “A-ha!” by Imogen Heap. It is a son that seems designed to impart a creepy sensation. On its YouTube video, one user comments:
Some are more brash:
We can give it a listen to find out for ourselves[i].
So, what makes this song creepy? What makes any song creepy? At first listen, it may seem like a product of the music (what could be called the instrumental aspect of the song). The fast-paced tempo and the disjointed melodies seem intended to create a sense of creepiness. But this may not be the only thing at play; it may be that this cannot be the only thing at play. Colin Radford states that “a piece of music is simply a (usually rhythmic) sequence of sounds, selected and organized by the composer…. that is all.” (Radford 71) He argues “that listening to sad (or angry, or creepy) music makes you sad simply in the way in which a change in one’s hormonal levels can make one agitated or sad.”, and that “the hormonal change is not itself sad” as to be sad, you must “find something to be sad about, an “object.”” (70). Radford argues that music cannot create emotion on its own, for music is purely abstract. Emotion must be connected to the world, and for that an object is necessary.
The lyrics of “A-ha” may prove to be this object. That is, they may allow us to connect the abstract feelings of creepiness to the world such that it can become true emotion. While they may sound like nonsense at first, the lyrics may be key to understanding how the song can create the creepiness feeling. Yet to answer the question about how the lyrics of “A-ha!” make the song creepy, it is necessary to understand creepiness in the first place.
The working psychological hypothesis entails that being “creeped out” is “an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty” (Mcandrew & Koehnke, 2016). The two key phrases here are that for a situation to be creepy, there needs to be both “uncertainty” and an ambiguous “presence of threat”. To create a sense of creepiness, the lyrics of “A-ha!” must do both these things, open a sense of uncertainty, and induce anxiety about an ambiguous threat into it.
Let’s start at the beginning: “Eat, sleep, and breathe that you’re full of the stuff”. Notice that eating, sleeping, and breathing are necessities for life. “The stuff” in this lyric then could easily be life itself. But it also could not be. The lyrics do not say “Eat, sleep, and breathe that you’re full of life”. They purposely introduce ambiguity and uncertainty. “Stuff” could be almost anything. The language is trying to avoid referring to anything, so it uses the word “stuff”. It is reasonable to assume that this language introduces uncertainty by what it tries to avoid stating directly, when it denies its ability to refer.
By denying this drive towards reference, we see the language in “A-ha!” drawing attention to itself. We see this in the next phrase “Wheat-meat-dairy-free, tee total, So happy clappy”. The most distinctive parts of this sentence are not what the words mean, but the rhymes and alliteration. “Free, tee total” and “happy clappy” are arguably the two most distinctive segments of this phrase if we view it from this standpoint. It is important to note that we still can, and perhaps instinctively do, try to gain meaning from the sentence. Yet the meaning is almost certainly less apparent than the language itself. We see the attempted denial of reference, the subsequent introduction of uncertainty, and the focus on language itself throughout the song “A-ha!”.
We can now draw our attention to the lyric “Busy bee wave, wave ‘save the planet’ flag. But sneaky in suburbia”. A curious word here is “but” which indicates that the two clauses are related to each other. The second phrase should contradict or provide a counterpoint to the second. At the very least, one should refer to the other. Yet finding a connection proves difficult. If you look hard enough, you could propose that “Busy bee wave, wave ‘save the planet’ flag” is an incrimination of movements to protect the environment, on the grounds that they intrude upon leisure and life (hence the “busy bee wave”). The second clause could be an escape in the form of being “sneaky in suburbia”, with suburbia in this case as the opposing term to “save the planet”. But this seems like a reach. It perhaps more tenable to consider that the phrases are not related to each other, or that they are only related in an incidental way. The “but” has the same purpose as “stuff” from earlier. It attempts to disrupt the language’s ability to refer, and introduces uncertainty in the process.
Finally, we can note a phrase towards the end of the song. Here we see: “And put the deepest Swiss bank trust in you” instead of the seemingly more obvious “And put the deepest trust in you”. Here the two words “swiss bank” perform an important function, calling to mind different ideas of what “trust” means. It is now ambiguous as to whether “trust” refers to personal confidence in somebody, or a bundle of money held by a bank. “Swiss Bank” interrupts the phrase’s reference chain, again creating a sense of ambiguity.
Yet this cannot be the whole picture. If all the lyrics of “A-ha!” do is deny their ability to refer, the song would have a lot of uncertainty, but not a lot of anxiety. There would be ambiguity, but no threat. “A-Ha!” probably wouldn’t be all that creepy. Yet it is important to note that language can’t just deny its ability to refer. All words carry a basket of connotations. All words mean something. All language must refer. The language of “A-ha!” may purposely impede its ability to refer, but it still refers nonetheless.
It becomes apparent that “A-ha!” cannot mean nothing, even if it tries to. So, what does “A-ha!” mean? What are the references that it draws? We have already shown that the lyrics of the song create a sense of uncertainty. Perhaps by dumping a basket of connotations upon the listener, many of which create a sense of anxiety, “A-ha!” can project a sense of creepiness into the uncertainty it has created.
Consider the phrase “Golden boy boots”. The reader in this case reads “golden boy”, We think of young male entrepreneurs and politicians, your Zuckerbergs, Obamas, and Rubios. We are distilled with ideas of success and accomplishment. Then we hear “boots”, which is a bit of an odd word to hear after golden boy. It introduces the idea of necessity; the golden boy needs boots. There is a level of utilitarian necessity in the word “boots”, work boots come to mind. Additionally, the word “boots” has connotations relating to fashion, that of style boots and uggs. It could be that the “boots” destabilizes the implied self-sufficiency and masculinity of the “golden boy”. We see more indication of this attempt at a building with a subsequent destabilization in the following phrase, “pocket pedestal”. A pedestal raises something or someone up, bringing it into a position of respect and attention. But a “pocket pedestal” implies a smallness and a ubiquity. Not only that, but a pocket pedestal destabilizes the idea of a pedestal in the first place. Not everything can be admired and respected. In respect to the individual, it may not be too much of a stretch to say that the idea of a pocket pedestal undermines the often-repeated platitude “believe in yourself”. So, the overall picture is one of undermined assurance, introducing anxiety in the place of confidence.
We see another instance of references that seem designed to produce feelings of anxiety in the lyric “You should try it, you should know. Go on while no one’s looking.” Here Heap is speaking directly to the listener. The message is coercive. “You should try it” creates a pressure to do something, something which is probably “bad” or not allowed, for it is important to “go on while no one’s looking”. “You should know” conveys the idea that the listener is missing out.
Now we can turn our attention to the titular lines, which perhaps do the most to create a sense of anxiety in “A-ha!”. “A-ha! Caught you now! Caught you red handed in the biscuit tin! Cost you to keep me quiet” and “A-ha! Candid camera! Hook, line and sinker.” These lines can be read as a kind of spotlight on the unsuspecting listener, the A-ha! of being found doing something slightly naughty—of being “caught red handed in the biscuit tin”— and of being watched—hence the “Candid Camera.” There is even the idea of blackmail (which I would think is fairly anxiety inducing) with the “Cost you to keep me quiet.”
To create creepiness, it is not enough for “A-ha!” to just deny its ability to refer to the world. But interestingly, it is not enough for “A-ha!” to just refer either. The lyrics must perform two functions. They must inhibit their own ability to refer, yet refer nonetheless. And these references must be directed, such that they produce connotations relevant to the emotion of creepiness. Taken together, these allow “A-ha!” to introduce an anxious ambiguity about the presence of a threat. They create creepiness.
[i] Full lyric transcript: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/imogenheap/aha.html
Mcandrew, F. T., & Koehnke, S. S. (2016, March 16). On the nature of creepiness. New Ideas in Psychology, 43, 10-15. doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2016.03.003
Radford, C. (1989). Emotions and Music: A Reply to the Cognitivists. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 47(1), 69. doi:10.2307/431994