In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: Though she’s probably best known for her childhood roles in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and as the titular character in Matilda, Mara Wilson has found success as an adult: She’s “The Faceless Old Woman” on the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, has written an off-Broadway play, and just inked a deal to publish (K) For Kid, a book of personal essays, sometime in 2016. She’s also active on Twitter, where she goes by @MaraWritesStuff.
The A.V. Club: Why did you pick this song?
Mara Wilson: It was ubiquitous in the early ’00s, so it was something I heard everywhere, all the time. And I didn’t have good associations with it anyway.
Truly, there are a couple reasons I don’t like it. The first is that I really loved Tears For Fears. This wasn’t one of my favorite Tears For Fears songs, but the original, I think, is kind of cute and silly in a new wave-ish kind of way. It’s dramatic, it’s over the top, it’s full of angst. It’s fun. This version, I just hate. I think it’s depressing and miserable.
I also hate this song because of its association with Donnie Darko. Donnie Darko and I go way back. I got the script for Donnie Darko when I was 12 years old, right before I went to do a publicity tour in the U.K. When I was traveling there, I got really, really sick. I was throwing up all the time. I couldn’t keep food down. Because I was so nauseated, I couldn’t actually sleep, so I was lying around the hotel room, not doing anything and not sleeping. After not eating a lot of food and not sleeping for a few days, everything gets weird and you’re not sure what’s real anymore. I had OCD, too. OCD already makes weird thoughts pop into your head, like, “Oh my God, what if I, like, killed somebody in my sleep and I don’t even know it?” Something ridiculous like that. So, the only thing I could do—I was waiting for Harry Potter to come out—was read this script to keep myself occupied. I read it, and it was just the most terrifying thing. I was sleep deprived and I was exhausted and I was hungry and I didn’t know what was real anymore and then all of the sudden there was this goddamned 6-foot metal rabbit who may or may not predict the future and there was time travel and there were wormholes and there was all this crazy shit and I thought it was the scariest thing I’d ever read. I had a panic attack and I threw it aside and I didn’t want to hear about it ever again. My dad already didn’t want me to do it because he didn’t like the idea that I would’ve been playing Samantha—this was pre-Sparkle Motion, because Sparkle Motion did not appear in this draft—but he didn’t like the idea that I would say “fuck ass” in the first few pages. So I ignored it.
Then Donnie Darko came out and was kind of a sleeper hit. Nobody really cared about it for the first few years, but two years later, suddenly everybody knew it. I was at a boarding school for the visual and performing arts, and so you can imagine: Everybody there is already really into Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. Everybody there just fucking loved Donnie Darko. Donnie Darko all the time. We’re watching Donnie Darko in the common room. And everybody has discovered this song, “Mad World,” because “Mad World” is in Donnie Darko, and everybody is playing it all the time.
I already get really attached to certain music. I have really negative associations with some music. I used to get really depressed when my roommate would play Coldplay. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s because I was anxious a lot when I was a kid, and there was a lot of terrible easy listening around in the early ’90s, so I associate it with that sometimes. Easy listening has, in the past, made me depressed or given me a panic attack. There was something about this song, every time I heard it, I just felt depressed. And it was this association with Donnie Darko, which I finally did see when I was 15 and thought was okay. I thought it was interesting, but there were problems with it, so I wasn’t as into it as everybody else was. And they hadn’t had the same experience that I had with it.
Everybody thought it was the deepest song ever, man. It was a slow jam. I had to do a dance piece to it in a dance class. I had a friend who was playing it all the time. She told me something—and this made me hate it even more—she was like, “Yeah, the guy from R.E.M. did this song, right?” And I said, “No.” I was raised on R.E.M. R.E.M. is my dad’s favorite band; it was one of my mom’s favorite bands, too. My brothers all loved R.E.M. R.E.M. was what we listened to on road trips. I was very protective of R.E.M. I was like, “No, this is not Michael Stipe. Please do not associate him with this. They were like, “No, it is, it is! It’s totally Michael Stipe. It’s totally that guy from R.E.M.” And then I was like, “No, you ruined it.”
And then my roommate started playing it all the time. My roommate and I, even when we liked the same bands—we both liked Tegan And Sara, we both liked Belle & Sebastian—like I said, art-school students at 17—we never liked the same songs. I would want to listen to Belle & Sebastian’s upbeat songs and she would listen to “I Fought In A War” on repeat, over and over again. She listened to a lot of Phish. I’m not a Phish fan. She would listen to a lot of Phish and play that song “Farmhouse” over and over again—all the really boring songs. I talked to somebody a few weeks ago who follows Phish around, and I said, “My old roommate always used to play ‘Farmhouse,’” and he goes, “Oh, God, that’s the worst song.”
Anyway, she started playing “Mad World” over and over again. I didn’t complain because she didn’t complain when I played show tunes. I was a theater major. But I was so fucking sick of that song. I thought I’d escaped it, but last year I saw somebody do some kind of act, and they had that song in it. I thought, “Oh my God, am I never going to escape this song?”
I remember this story about Kathleen Hanna, after inspiring “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—and God knows I did not inspire this song or this movie in any way at all—I remember hearing that she had written that phrase on Kurt Cobain’s wall when she was really, really drunk, and said a bunch of really embarrassing things and embarrassed herself horribly at a party. So after he named it that, and every time “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played, she thought of herself, drunk as shit, causing trouble and embarrassing herself—every time. I heard that and I got that. That’s kind of my experience with “Mad World” because I think about me being 12 years old and practically hallucinating and thinking, “Oh God, the world is coming undone” because I had not eaten or slept in days.
AVC: I was in college around the same time, and it was a big era of everything online being mislabeled. It’d be like, “Dave Matthews Band’s ‘All Along The Watchtower,’” and really, it’s Jimi Hendrix. That makes the R.E.M. attribution make a little more sense.
MW: It must have been that. Poor “Weird Al” did every comedy song ever in those days. I downloaded a version of Pachelbel’s “Canon,” because when I was in choir, we did a version of it. And it was labeled “Mozart’s Pachelbel’s Canon.” We never knew who did what, so I think that was understandable.
I think it’s really hard to describe musical tastes. I read HateSong all the time and I love it, but I love a lot of the songs that people hate. So it’s interesting to me to see: What is it about this song that they actually hate? I think sometimes it’s hard to tell. I think musical taste can be like lingual taste, in that there’s something about it that touches you in a certain way, that affects you on this level that’s hard to explain. It has this quality that’s really hard to describe. There are songs, I think, that are objectively bad but they still resonate with people.
This song, I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about what it is I don’t like, and I think it’s the associations, but also that it’s so boring. There are no dynamics. I remember my brother had this cover of “Thriller” that was an acoustic version of “Thriller,” and he would play it and it was so boring. You know, you can do really beautiful covers of songs, but this one had no dynamics and none of the interest of “Thriller.” It didn’t build at all. The whole point of “Thriller,” and the whole greatness of the Michael Jackson song, is the way it builds, and the theatrics of it. So it was just this guy going, “It’s close to midnight, something dah dah dah. So this is thriller. This is thriller.” He was chanting it. It got really boring, and that’s how I feel about this song: It’s just recitations, and it’s just this piano part this guy learned six months into playing piano. There’s nothing interesting to it. It’s the same thing over and over again.
AVC: There’s also an implied depth to it. Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” is already pretty slow, but it’s like Gary Jules said, “I’m going to slow it down and make it even more moody.” So when people listen to it, they’re like, “This is a deep song. This is me, listening to a deep song, because I’m a deep person.”
MW: You had kids writing, like, “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” on their shoes, which is so fucking LiveJournal.
That’s a thing, too: When Tears For Fears did this song, they didn’t need to make it this slow jam. They made it this weird, upbeat new-wave thing. There was a lot of that, I think, in the ’80s—a lot of these weird quasi-esoteric lyrics with upbeat tunes. And it was fun, but then we were like, “No, we need everything to be serious now. We need to bring it down. We need to make it more.” At that point it feels like it’s hitting you over the head with how deep a song it is. It’s not that deep. It was deep for ’80s new wave, but it’s not deep for this. There’s a difference between the form and content of it. You can be deep for a poppy, upbeat song in the ’80s, but this isn’t deep for an early ’00s slow jam. Not with those lyrics. But in those days, people were listening to Dashboard Confessional and being, like, “No, guys, this is real music.”
AVC: I didn’t realize how popular this version of “Mad World” was. I knew it was popular here in certain crowds, but in the U.K., it was a No. 1 single.
MW: That is crazy! I don’t know. Any time a guy started telling me he loved Donnie Darko, that was a red flag for me. It was always the same kind of guy: a guy who’s kind of a douche and thought he was smarter than he was. He was like, “No, man, I love Donnie Darko.” I was like, “Oh, okay, all right.” It was the same thing at that time with Radiohead fans. If somebody was a hardcore Radiohead fan, I was like, “Okay, I’m stepping off.” As much as I liked Radiohead, people who were Radioheads were evangelical in those days.
AVC: Again, it’s about this implied level of depth. Like, “I’m not like other people. I truly get this movie.”
MW: It definitely was. It was accessible to them. Every time I would say that there’s a problem with it—like, I would say about the psychiatrist, “You guys, hypnosis doesn’t work that way,” or, “Psychiatrists don’t work that way,” because I was a dork and very uptight about these things. I had OCD myself, so misrepresentation of mental illness in the media really bothered me. It still really bothers me. It’s something that I’m trying to deal with.
But when she says he has an imaginary friend, he’s automatically a paranoid schizophrenic. I remember thinking, “Well, no, because that’s only one symptom of schizophrenia.” I was a stickler for those kinds of things even then. That bothered me. Or the hypnosis and how he completely succumbs to it. The way that was depicted really bothered me. I had a lot of nits to pick with Donnie Darko. But everybody was like, “It’s a mindfuck, so it’s great.”
A friend of mine said this about Inception: She said it was “mind-bending, if not mind-blowing.” I mean, it was kind of a twist but not necessarily an incredible, blowing-your-mind kind of thing, and I think that’s what Donnie Darko was like. It was something that made you think, “That’s kind of cool,” but it wasn’t something that really made you sit back and go, “Wow, this is something I’ve never thought of before. This has changed my life.” It wasn’t like that, and I feel like a lot of people thought that it was.
AVC: Or, if it was to you, that says more about you than it should.
MW: It really did mess up my mind when I was 12 and hadn’t slept in a few days. Maybe I’m not giving it enough credit because it did scare the shit out of me.
AVC: Maybe you were just an advanced 12-year-old.
MW: [Laughs.] Maybe. It scared the shit out of me when I was 12, and when I saw it again when I was 15, it really wasn’t as scary and world-shaking as I thought it was going to be. Maybe that was the thing: I read that script and I built it up in my own head when I was in this state of confusion. I’d only read it up to the part where Frank appears, I think. I put it down and was like, “I can’t read this anymore because this is terrifying.” In my head, it became this really scary, terrifying thing. But then I saw the movie and I was like, “This is actually kind of a letdown. This isn’t anywhere near as terrifying or weird as it was in my head.” My version wasn’t better, I don’t think, but it was weirder. Fortunately, I can’t remember a lot of the stuff that happened in those few days.
AVC: What were in London for?
MW: I was there doing publicity for a children’s movie, actually. I was there for Thomas And The Magic Railroad. To which I say, “They’re not all To Kill A Mockingbird.” When you’re a child actor, there are only so many things you can do. People ask me sometimes why I was in it, but I was in it because it was fun. It was a fun movie to film and I got to travel to fun places. I like kids, and I still get 3-year-olds telling me they loved me. It was a fun shoot. That made it even stranger for me to be that out of it while I was there. By day three, the trains really were talking to me.
AVC: Now I hate the song even more.
MW: The thing is, I love Tears For Fears. I know how cheesy they are. My taste in music is pretty bad. I have family members who are pop-song nerds. One of my brothers walked down the aisle to a Kinks song. They all know this stuff. But I like fun music—especially when I’m drinking. My God, when I’m drinking, I will go on Twitter and talk about how much I love Tears For Fears. I will go on and on.
But this ruined Tears For Fears. It ruined R.E.M. a little bit by association. I’ve heard some of Gary Jules’ other songs, and they’re nice slow jam-type stuff. They’re not anything I would listen to but not stuff I’d actively hate as much as I hate this song.
AVC: I didn’t remember “Mad World” when you first mentioned it, but when I looked it up, I immediately remembered how much I hated it.
MW: It’s a really great song for wallowing in your own misery, which I think we did a lot when we were 17. All my friends who listened to it thought they were deeper than they were or they were really depressed. When you heard somebody playing that song, you either rolled your eyes or you thought, “Oh God, they need help.”
I will say, though, that I thought about my pick. There are a lot of Katy Perry songs I hate because they’re platitudes and they’re mixed metaphors and they’re awful. But I know that Brian Posehn did “Firework.” He explained pretty well why people hate it. There are a lot of cheesy pop songs I could have done, but I think this one is worse.
I should probably say, though: I was totally the type of 17-year-old who thought I was a lot smarter than I was. So maybe it also hits me on a personal level. I wish I was anywhere near as smart as I pretend to be.