A scientific survey reported here has identified the Spice Girls' 1996 hit "Wannabe" as the "catchiest song of all time." I can't argue with the numbers they report, but I'm not so sure about the conclusion.
The researchers set up a website and determined how long it took survey participants to recognize a song. It took people an average of 2.29 seconds to recognize "Wannabe." The rankings are not separated by much; "Billie Jean" was in 15th place but the average name-that-tune time for it was only about three-quarters of a second longer than "Wannabe" at the top spot.
There's obviously a little latitude going on here in several areas. The first is in the song selection, which only goes back into the 1940s. Toss, say, "Beethoven's Ninth" into the mix or "The Star Spangled Banner," and you might see some significant challenges to that 2.29 seconds time. The website the experiment uses is hosted in the United Kingdom, so substitute "God Save the Queen" or "Rule Britannia" in for "Banner" if you like. In fairness, the "catchiest song of all time" label comes from headline writers rather than the scientists themselves, so we can't lay the "all time" silliness at their door.
And "quickest recognized" doesn't necessarily equate with "catchiness." I might recognize "Wannabe" faster than "Oh, Pretty Woman" too, but that doesn't mean I want to listen to it instead of the Roy Orbison classic. In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't.
In any event, the scientists are researching the effect of music on memory as a way of trying to find out more about Alzheimer's Disease, so bravo to them all around. And I'd probably make a lousy test subject anyway, because when I read about the story, the song that "Wannabe" kept bringing to my mind was this one:
(H/T Yeah Right, where Allison also questions the recognizable/catchy equation)