Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)
Some wars are good. Most are bad. Some are just plain weird. The Cold War was definitely weird, and one of the best ways to grasp its weirdness is to listen to Cold War novelty songs from the 1940s to the 1960s. The oddest of them all may be “Tic Tic Tic” by Doris Day, from 1949. Though Day’s 1956 hit “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” is a bit maudlin, it continues to pull on the heartstrings. Unfortunately “Tic, Tic, Tic,” about a Geiger counter, has not aged well at all. It may just get on your last nerve. Yet this song is interesting and valuable in that it captures the naiveté of Americans in the late 1940s and 1950s regarding the dangers of radioactivity.
“Tic Tic Tic” by Doris Day
Like fallout shelters and gas masks, Geiger counters were a Cold War consumer fad. They first appeared in the 1950 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog, one of the best indicators of consumer trends in the twentieth century. Uranium mining was the main impetus for their sudden popularity. In the early 1950s, the U.S. government’s Atomic Energy Commission encouraged everyday citizens, trusty Geiger counters by their side, to spend their weekends hunting down uranium ore, the secret elixir that made the atomic bomb go boom. In addition, people bought Geiger counters to test the radiation levels in their homes (since there were rumors of rising radioactivity in the air due to nuclear bomb testing), and to test radiation levels after a nuclear attack. Bob Dylan captured this craze in his memoir Chronicles, Volume One: “[T]he general opinion was, in case of nuclear attack all you really needed was a surplus Geiger counter. It might become your most prized possession, would tell you what’s safe to eat and what’s dangerous. Geiger counters were easy to get. In fact, I even had one in my New York apartment.”
Reflecting the trend, Geiger counters began appearing in the lyrics of popular songs of the day, including “Tic Tic Tic.” The song, with lyrics by Ralph Blane and music by Harry Warren, is from the romantic comedy My Dream Is Yours (1949). In the film, Day plays a single mother, Martha, who is trying to break into radio with the help of Doug (Jack Carson), a talent scout. She sings “Tic, Tic, Tic” during an audition for “The Hour of Enchantment.” She eventually wins the spot as a radio singer, replaces the current radio star Gary (Lee Bowman), and goes on to stardom. The song has little to do with the plot of the film. It simply acts as a vehicle to show Day’s infatuation with Gary. The lyrics compare the beating heart of someone falling in love to the ticking of a Geiger counter. The love interest in the song is described as radioactive (i.e., HOT!), making the pursuer’s heart tic, or beat, incessantly like the device.
“Tic, Tic, Tic” comes across less as a love song and more as an exercise in how many times one word can be repeated in a song (a hallmark of novelty tunes). In the course of its two and half minutes, Day manages to sing the word “tic” seventy-one times (go ahead, count them), and rhyme it with ten other words (click, trick, electric, realistic, hick, kick, stick, quick, candlestick, and politics). Meanwhile, the pizzicato violins in the orchestral accompaniment drive the point home by “ticking” along with every “tic,” practically giving the listener a nervous tic.
But something, in addition to its relentless repetition, is amiss in this song. Geiger counters measure radioactivity, and radioactivity in high doses is bad for humans, right? It does nasty things like melt one’s skin off. Yet the listener would not know that from listening to this song. The bright and jolly melody—matched with Day’s good girl persona, charm, and pleasant voice—distract the listener from what radioactivity is and how it affects the human body. How can it be such a bad thing if a song like this can be written about it? Although the song is not government propaganda, it does reflect the ignorance of the American public, an ignorance which the U.S. government intentionally created. And in fact, Day’s song is only one of many such songs. I’ve found at least 20 songs about radioactivity turning men into super-masculine hunks or women into bombshells.
Publications and educational films released by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Civil Defense Administration up until the early to mid-1960s were vague and circumspect about the actual effects of radiation exposure on the human body. Laura Hein and Mark Selden write that beginning in 1945, U.S. officials prevented the American public from seeing images of the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially images showing radiation burns on Japanese civilians. In the U.S. government pamphlet Survival under Atomic Attack from 1950, radiation exposure is compared to sunburn and is described mostly as just vomiting and hair loss. In the pamphlet Facts about Fallout from 1955, the most that citizens are told about radiation is, “It will hurt you! It may even kill you!” The only opportunity for most Americans to see what radiation did to the human body was photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb victims published in the September 29, 1952 edition of Life magazine. The film footage taken by Japanese reporter Akira Iwasaki—shot in the days after the bombings and showing men, women, and children scarred by radiation burns—was censored by the U.S. government until 1970. In November 1945, General Leslie Groves (the director of the Manhattan Project), told a Senate committee this about dying from radiation sickness: “[A]s I understand it from the doctors . . . it is a very pleasant way to die.” While it is understandable that some discretion about the effects of radiation was necessary to prevent widespread alarm among the American populace, many Cold War historians believe such discretion was outright deception.
“Tic, Tic, Tic” is nothing more than a fun, harmless, novelty song, but it does reveal the ignorance of the American public—including the songwriters—regarding the atomic bomb and radioactivity. Doris Day is not to blame, yet her happy-go-lucky, girl-next-door image helps to facilitate the message that atomic energy is more of a miracle drug than a deadly force. Placed within the context of the Cold War, this song is an example of the victors writing the history books. Songs such as these are the products of a society that never experienced the horror of a nuclear attack first-hand, nor acquired knowledge of the scale of human devastation in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. They also illustrate the anesthetic properties of novelty songs, whitewashing serious subject matter with silliness.
- How do the lyrics and music of this song show that Americans in the 1940s and 1950s were ignorant of the full effects of radiation on the human body?
- Do you know any current novelty songs that reflect ignorance among the general public, or treat an important issue in a juvenile manner? Are any of the presidential candidates using music in this way?
From Atomic Tunes: The Cold War in American and British Popular Music by Tim and Joanna Smolko. Copyright © 2018, Tim and Joanna Smolko. Reprinted with permission of Indiana University Press.