June 25, 2014

Book of Happy - Chapter 2: The Song

There's no nice way to say this, happiness is dumb.  There's a reason we say people are "fat and happy."  Dumb.  It means they're dumb.

This is a happy song that is also dumb:

The odd thing about Happy is, it's not all that happy, either musically or in its lyrical content.  It is energetic, engaging, even defiant, but my contention is that Happy is not happy, at least not in the conventional sense of the world.  It has as little do with Herman's Hermits as the Bhagavad Gita does with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

Listen to the tone of the music:

In the ascension to the chorus, Pharrell sings "because I'm happy..." not in a major progression, but in a minor one, with a blueing whole step as the third note of the chord.  This sets up an immediate and disquieting tension between the ostensibly happy lyrics and the more ominous musical context.  The harmonies behind the chorus and the female "happy happy happy happy" background chant again are nowhere near a major key, and the voices themselves sounds strained, even anxious.

What prevents complete implosion is the positive call-and-response, in which Pharrell encourages us, through his masterful vocal performance, to clap along if...  If what?  Yeah, good question.  Here are Pharrell's koans, and you can tell me how happy they are:
  • "Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof."  For me this implies ecstasy, not happiness, and with a specifically religious connotation.  Happy has strong gospel influences (more on this another time), and Pharrell looks upward as he sings.  He is saying:  clap along if you are consumed with religious ecstasy.  Are you?
  • "Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth."  What, wait?  No one thinks that.  Keats said beauty was truth, and I thought that myself until I met some very untruthful beauties.  Socrates thought the truth arose from the acknowledgement of your own ignorance.  The Buddha thought the truth was always accessible, if one could set aside cravings and emotions (like happiness) to experience it.  But happiness is truth?  When I was in college we heard a girl say:  "my philosophy is to always be happy."  We laughed and laughed.
  • "Clap along if you know what happiness is to you."  Why am I not clapping?  Well, because that's a hard question.  What is happiness?  Who are we?  Why are we here?  When should we feel happy?  This guy is throwing stuff into a pop song that belongs in a graduate seminar in phenomenology, and moving along like it ain't no thing.
  • "Clap along if you feel like that's what you want to do."  Ok, that part I get.
So if Happy is not happy, what is it?  I believe Pharrell is singing about a state of mind far from conventional happiness, and he gives strong clues as to its nature in the second verse:
Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah,
No offense to you, don’t waste your time

...and in the earnest, imploring break:
Bring me down, can't nothin'
Bring me down, my level's too high
Bring me down, can't nothin'
Bring me down...

Pharrell is describing a kind of joyous freedom, one in which adverse events cannot affect his equilibrium.  It is not intoxication or madness - he is fully in control of his faculties.  He has reached a place - real or imagined - in which he is suffused with joy and cannot touched by the dirt of everyday life.  The closest analog I can think of is the Tenth Bull of zen, a description of the highest state of enlightenment, in which the bodhisattva wanders in the world:
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

The happiness of Happy is not giddy or lighthearted.  It is strong and defiant, but without anger or angst.  It is joyful in a serious way, not an insensible one.  It is happiness with eyes and heart open.  It is full of love, but informed by a deep sense that the world does not always offer love in return.

It is not happiness Pharrell is talking about, it is enlightenment.  It is love past reason.  The dissonance in the song mirrors the dissonance in our own lives, between the frustrations of our daily experience and that part of our soul that yearns to be unchained.

Think I'll listen to it again.

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Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

But the more I listen to it, the more I hate Auto-Tune.

June 25, 2014 at 10:11 PM  

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