*This past Easter Sunday, I drove over to Aunt Jewel’s.
No sooner than I sat down in the living room, cousin Andre, tickled at what he was about to say, asked me to try and guess what song Aunt Jewel was “all into.” My aunt, getting comfortable in her favorite chair, sat with a mischievous grin, listening for my response.
“Let me guess—‘Happy’?”
The room, which included my cousins Troy and Lee, howled the affirmative. “Yes! Yes! She’s into the Pharrell Williams song.”
“There’s just something about it that gets me going,” Aunt Jewel conceded, moving her arms in a way that presumably denotes an 87 year-old person getting going. “Every time I hear it, it just does something to me.” She said she first heard “Happy” when Pharrell was on “Good Morning America.” “Stevie, the man is forty years-old and looks twenty,” she said. “And that song—it gets inside you.”
No question, Pharrell Williams has got one with “Happy.” How big is this song? So big that I’m writing about it only now—six months after it was released from both the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack and Pharrell’s Girl CD–and the subject is still relevant.
A global number one hit, the Academy Award-nominated “Happy” (it lost the Best Original Song statue to the movie Frozen’s “Let It Go”) has sold almost five million copies in the U.S. alone.
There are songs that, if you hear them just once in a day, you’re humming them all day long. With “Happy,” you don’t have to even HEAR the actual song; if you’re familiar with it, you only have to hear or read the title and the song’s infectious hook takes over your brain for hours.
Good luck in getting the ditty out of your head after reading this.
There are people who love “Happy” so much, they make their own music videos for the song. In turn, somebody loves the videos people make for “Happy” so much, they’ve created a site that runs them.
And “Happy ” has now reached that rarefied zenith of success where people have given themselves permission to say they absolutely HATE hearing “Happy,” without feeling an ounce of guilt. When a perfectly sane and reasonable person can declare, “If I hear that song one more fucking time I’m going to jump off a building,” you know you’ve gone beyond having a hit; your song is now part of the air we breathe.
But then, in popular music, we’ve seen the power of happy before. In 1988, vocalist Bobby Mcferrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” had the same impact on McFerrin’s career and popular culture. The first song performed a cappella to go number one pop, at the 1989 Grammy Awards, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” won Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. And it, too, got so much airplay that ultimately it was either loved or loathed.
“Happy” puts Pharrell on another level. For years as a songwriter/producer he’s crafted hits for others, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and the duo Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” being among his most recent. However, “Happy” has made him a personality who appears on talk shows and cries during interviews with Oprah.
Moreover, Pharrell has done something that few young black artists of his generation do today: he actually created a song devoid of the N and B words; a tune that, for once, isn’t about sex, money, big asses, alcohol, weed, cars, cribs or being all up in the ubiquitous Club.
Instead, “Happy” is an anthem about the emotion, state of mind and spiritual destination known as contentment. It’s got everyone from babies to my 87 year- old aunt moving and feeling…happy.
What a concept.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]