This post contains spoilers for the Reply All episode, 'The Case of The Missing Hit'.
HAVE YOU EVER placed a note in a bottle or in some hidden spot, hoping someone would find it? Or shared a dispatch for one of those space/time capsules, trying to capture a small part of yourself at that particular moment, so someone will bear witness to it generations or light years later?
Listening to a recent episode of Reply All — a podcast that’s seemingly about internet culture but touches on nearly every facet of modern life — feels remarkably like that.
Called ‘The Case of the Missing Hit’, it has spurred thinkpieces in the New York Times and the Guardian, and the consensus is that it’s among the best podcast episodes of all time.
On the Reply All site, the episode synopsis states: “A man in California is haunted by the memory of a pop song from his youth. He can remember the lyrics and the melody. But the song itself has vanished, completely scrubbed from the internet. PJ takes on the Super Tech Support case.”
But beyond the mystery at its core, ‘The Case of the Missing Hit’ is a story about the music we love and remember, and prompts the question — if something can’t be found on the internet, does it even exist at all?
Driving home with his wife one night, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Tyler Gillet was “goofing around”, singing a song he remembered playing on the radio back home in Arizona in the ‘90s, during his teens. It had catchy verses reminiscent of the Barenaked Ladies, a chorus with a U2-ish sound, and lyrics that listed all the things the focus of the song (in Tyler's rendition, his wife) was better than:
Better than the Venus De Milo in a g-string
Better than the promise of a good one night fling
Better than a big book of Bettie Page pictures
Even if it came with a year's subscription
Better than a ticket to a Holyfield ringside
Better than the daughter of a sultan for a bride
Better than the cherry on a whipped cream sundae
Better than a week that'll never have a Monday.
His wife said she’d never heard of it, so Tyler Googled it, wanting to play it for her. Oddly, no corresponding song showed up.
Over that night and the next few days, Tyler tried to remember more of the song, jotting down snatches of lyrics and melody. His internet searches remained fruitless. He then made a recording of the song, imitating all the instruments as best he could vocally, and fed it into SoundHound (a song recognition app). No result.
But Tyler wasn't ready to give up just yet.
As part of the 'Super Tech Support' segment on their podcast Reply All, hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt have taken on some fairly unusual challenges.
There was the time Alex was contacted by a woman whose Snapchat account had been 'stolen'; Alex tracked down the thief (whilst uncovering some pretty surreal corners of the internet), who then apologised to the woman ('Snapchat Thief'). On another occasion, a man noticed that a personal blog post he had written about the death of his wife resurfaced a decade later as clickbaity articles in the "chum box" of multiple websites. Alex managed to have these taken down ('An Ad for the Worst Day of Your Life').
In terms of absolute zaniness though, the quest for Tyler's elusive song was like the "cherry on a whipped cream sundae". It clicked with a personality trait of PJ’s, where he says his brain “won’t change the channel” until whatever puzzle has him occupied is resolved to his satisfaction.
He flew to Los Angeles to meet Tyler; sought the help of a musician friend, Christian Lee Hutson, who brought together a few of his musician friends; and (with Tyler's very detailed inputs) recorded a professional version of the song in a studio. The finished recording was the physical manifestation of a song that Tyler had only carried around in his head up until that point.
And yet, when they tried SoundHound with the new recording, Tyler's song was still unidentified.
After the failed SoundHound search, PJ turned to the critics at Rolling Stone magazine, a radio programme director, experts like Jessica Hopper, Robert Christgau, and "the human encyclopedia of forgotten pop music" Rob Sheffield.
He also reached out to Steven Page, the former frontman of the Barenaked Ladies. Steven said Tyler's song was not a BNL track, theorising that its mysterious absence from the internet and people's memories was probably a legacy of the music industry from 1997-2000: a period when, flush with funds, record companies picked up (mostly) cover bands to make original music, tested it on the radio, and dumped these artistes or their albums if their songs didn’t get enough play.
Another of PJ’s interviewees who didn’t recognise the song but had a plausible explanation for why it couldn’t be found, was sound engineer and record producer Susan Rogers: Tyler had created a false memory of a song that didn’t exist, she said, or it was a composite of different songs he had heard.
This it seemed, was the logical conclusion to 'The Case of the Missing Hit'.
Except, it wasn't.
In an interview with me over the phone from New York, PJ Vogt admitted “there was a moment, very, very briefly” when he and Reply All’s executive producer Tim Howard discussed what they’d do if they never found Tyler’s song.
“We had put a lot of time into it. And we had a lot of interviews that were really funny and interesting. So we came up with this plan, where we could tell most of the story, play the cover song we'd made, and ask listeners to try to identify it. But that felt like such a disappointing end to the story..."
What kept him going, PJ says, was that he felt — "maybe a bit irrationally" — that Tyler's song was real. "Because I have a brain that's very obsessive, I know what it's like to remember something very unimportant in very explicit detail. So I related to that part of Tyler's brain a little bit. And I felt like if there was a song we should be able to find it."
That resolve could have been tested by a strange possibility.
Tyler had met a quantum physicist who serves as a consultant to Hollywood (to help them get "all the fake science accurate" in movies, as PJ describes it) in the course of pitching a sci-fi movie. When he told the physicist about the song, the latter said everything Tyler had narrated was "evidence that [he] had passed from one parallel universe to another”. "And Tyler — middle-of-the-night, can't-sleep — had considered that possibility," says PJ. "So I ended up going to Caltech, where the quantum physicist teaches, and talked to him for three hours, realising by the end of it that we were probably not dealing with a multiverse situation."
The incident didn't make it to the final cut of 'The Case of the Missing Hit'.
What did make the cut was a device that drives home how insidiously the song had crept into the minds of those who encountered it — Tyler, PJ, Christian Lee Hutson. Fragments of the song play at various points in the narrative — haunting and earworm-y — at one time, slowing down and morphing into a disembodied nightmare voice.
PJ says that was Tim Howard's idea, and notes that the nine-member Reply All team works collaboratively on every episode. "Sometimes people don't realise how much work everybody does who's not on mic," he says, crediting Emmanuel Dzotsi for helping with the interviews and research, as well as producers Damiano Marchetti and Phia Bennin for their contributions. "Phia was the one who really pushed for us to speak with Susan Rogers... which was so great because she had such a convincing but wrong theory that it made finding the right answer all the more satisfying."
Just when you think 'The Case of the Missing Hit' is unsolvable, PJ does solve it.
He traces it over Facebook, to a singer-songwriter in North Carolina: Evan Scott Olson, who recorded the song in the '90s, signed a deal with Universal to release an album, had the song play on the radio a few times, but was dropped by the company on its release — just as Steven Page hypothesised.
In our interview, PJ told me he didn't anticipate 'The Case of the Missing Hit' becoming a cultural phenomenon, and ascribes it to being released in a moment "where people are preoccupied with something big and scary, and just the opportunity to think deeply about something else that's not big and scary for an hour is something that people are probably looking for right now".
The episode is indicative of Reply All's evolution since PJ and Alex kicked it off in 2014. "We've gotten more comfortable with bigger experiments... with big investigative questions. We've all grown as reporters," he says. And while the response to 'The Case of the Missing Hit' must have been gratifying, the Reply All team was already looking to the future.
"We had a bunch of plans for traditional Reply All narrative journalism pieces for the next few months [but] now with the coronavirus, we're reimagining what the show is going to be... we're all working from home, so we're trying to figure out how you make Reply All when nine different people are recording from nine different attics and basements — which has been challenging but also kind of exciting. It's a pretty uncertain time and trying to figure out how to be useful and inform and entertain people is a nice thing to be able to focus on."
For their most recent episode, 'The Attic and Closet Show', PJ and Alex took calls from people in various parts of the world over a span of several days, presenting snapshots of life during social distancing, curfews and lockdowns.
With its mix of amateur sleuthing, an infectious song, ‘90s nostalgia, and insights into the record industry and how our brains retain music, it’s unsurprising that ‘The Case of the Missing Hit’ has captivated listeners.
As for why Tyler was so intrigued to begin with, PJ told me:
"I feel like it's a couple of things. When you're a teenager and you listen to pop music, it's important to you in a way that almost nothing ever is again. It's the part of your life where your heart is the most open, and songs matter to you. And the songs that you hear and care about back then stay really, really important... And then I think the other part of it is that we've all gotten used to the idea that it's okay for us to have faulty, hole-filled memories because the internet is supposed to fill all that in for us. That it's okay to half-remember things from even 20 years ago, because you're able to put three words into Google [and have it show up]. It's almost like everyone's backup memory. And so the idea that something that is emotionally important got deleted off the big international hard drive that's supposed to save all of us… it's a little bit unnerving."
It's an introspective, poignant observation, and certainly more articulate than one I made listening to 'The Case of the Missing Hit', on a long commute home through the night at the beginning of March, as the Mumbai skyline moved past the windows of my Uber ride. It's a thought I've been holding on to ever since:
That you can make a song which maybe one other person in the world hears. And that person remembers it two decades later, in all its details. And that song then brings people together from all over, in a madcap caper, connecting them over millions of miles. And you'll never have known when the song was made and when it got lost that one day, some day, it would matter.
Someone picks up the bottle and reads your message. And in a distant galaxy, or in a generation far removed from your own, a time capsule is opened, and you or your memory or a whiff of the person you used to be, briefly comes alive again
Listen to Reply All's 'The Case of the Missing Hit' here. Reply All is a production of Gimlet Media, a Spotify company —