“Happy,” or, Pop Music as Weapon

2 May

From deep in my soul

I wish you happy feelin’s

– Frankie Beverly, “Happy Feelin’s

Pharrell Williams is a gifted writer of pop music. I see him in the tradition of people like Irving Berlin or Smokey Robinson more than, say,  Curtis Mayfield to whom he is often compared. I want to tease out some of the differences in this post, which primarily come down to their different relationships to the profession and industry.

Though we commonly tend to analyze pop songs through the lens of the biography of singer or writer, it’s worth remembering that at least since the early twentieth century popular music writing has been a profession, and longevity often required volume; the ability to write catchy tunes quickly and reliably. Writers worked under contract, and those who couldn’t produce enough would soon find themselves former songwriters.

Irving Berlin famously offered a set of guidelines for successful songwriting, including melodies within the range of the average voice, easily remembered ideas accented and repeated in verse and chorus, “universal” (i.e., both white men and women would enjoy it) appeal, pathos, originality (within the bounds of convention), lyrics that open onto common ideas or emotions, easily singable words, and simple structures. Above all, he stressed, “The song writer must look upon his work as a business.” And he did, writing an astonishing range of songs from “God Bless America” and “White Christmas” to jazz standards “How Deep is the Ocean” and beyond.

Smokey Robinson, like the legendary Motown teams of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson, and later Leon Ware and Norman Whitfield worked in a frankly commercial environment. Berry Gordy would famously ask his employees of songs “Would you buy this record for dollar or would you buy a sandwich?” assuming it was their last dollar. Coming out of this environment, Smokey’s output and genius speaks for itself. He excelled at ballads and dance songs, with the Miracles and solo, and put an indelible stamp on the sound of R&B and pop music. Like Berlin, whose 1911 “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” helped renew international interest in ragtime, Smokey helped to define and shape the sound of an era. His commercial context and instincts (like those of Berry Gordy) need not necessarily detract from his genius. If anything, the constraints under which he worked make his achievements all the more noteworthy.

Curtis Mayfield was also a brilliant songwriter, producing hits under his own name, with The Impressions, and for Aretha Franklin (later En Vogue), Gladys Knight, Jerry Butler, The Staple Singers, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Bob Marley, among others. But Mayfield worked in a different commercial context,and seemingly with a different set of guiding parameters. Perhaps best known for the soundtrack to Superfly, the cinema helped shape Mayfield’s career almost from the beginning (the Impressions’s reworked gospel song “Amen” was featured in Sidney Poitier vehicle Lilies of the Valley). In addition to gospel, his music is shaped by social consciousness, an open avowal of black pride (Gordy, and thus Robinson, largely shied away from politics) on songs like the sneakily militant “We’re a Winner,” “Keep on Pushing” and “Move on Up.”

Mayfield also founded the independent Curtom records, through which he released his own records and those of a host of other soul-era artists. There, he greatly expanded the possibilities of the pop song, pairing intricate, orchestral arrangements with funky grooves and his straining falsetto: his is the sound of black striving and black imagination, for good and for ill. (And he’s not above mocking his fans for dancing to the grooves rather than digging the message.) There’s something at once exhausting and exhilarating about Curtis: you feel moved by the groove, alongside the inadequacy of your movement. It’s hard not to remain aware that the finery, dancing, and pleasure is respite rather than end in itself, even as that pleasure is made an instrument, inviting us to imagine body movement transitioning into political movement, to imagine, invoking Askia Touré, “Rhythm & Blues as a Weapon.”

Of course, weapons are only as effective as those who use them, and the proper weapon depends to a great degree on the nature of the struggle. I started thinking about all of this in light of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” a song I increasingly dislike. The obvious thing to say is that it’s a brilliant pop song, has a great groove, is very catchy, and has inspired many viral videos. But the more I’ve listened to it, the more its call to compulsory well adjustment irks me. It started to irk me even before his asinine theory of the “new black,” a difference that makes no difference, diversity that changes nothing fundamental, the usual black culture without black consciousness (h/t Tamara Nopper for this formulation).

I am a literary scholar, though, so what I want to suggest is that “Happy” has a different structure of address than, say, Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” or Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Happy Feelin’s.” The speaker of Beverly’s song has a happiness he wants to spread all over the world; the speaker of “Happy” wants evidence that “you feel like happiness is the truth.” Given what I said about Berlin and Robinson, it’s not a snide dismissal to ask what does that even mean? Is it asking you to invest in the “feeling” of happiness over and against evidence that, despite the changes and progress pundits laud, the “oppressed seem to have suffered the most on every continent” and still do? In other words, is it to believe that temporary state of release and dancing in your finery is the truth of the world, and the conditions of oppression and exploitation are somehow fantasy? Is it just the old blues-inspired “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes”?

More than that: as in Mayfield’s songs, there’s something capacious about Beverly’s you, who is not asked to do anything but receive these happy feelings. Though “Move on Up” addresses a single “child” (“Hush now, child, and don’t you cry”) its imperative “move on up” always seems, at least to me, to anticipate a broader, more capacious address. The imperative to clap, to keep time with one’s body, cannot effect that transformation of body movement to social movement. Its addressee is individualized. No doubt, this is a song for the club or the concert hall, but it addresses those audiences as an aggregation individual consumers, whose freedom of movement is coextensive with freedom itself.

In slightly different terms, Beverly’s speaker’s insistence on “tell[ing] all [he] see[s]” and Mayfield’s speaker’s insistence on striving for greater freedom operate in a different social and political universe than Williams’ “Happy.” It’s also in a different social universe than Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin'”: though its speaker apparently addresses a single other, it is more relevant, teasing out one of Gaye Theresa Johnson’s arguments, to the destruction of neighborhoods that helped shape car culture, and aware of cruising as an attempt to reconstruct normal domesticity and community, or at least find temporary relief from unbearable conditions. Smokey wrote songs that for the most part were rooted in the real experiences of the people who would be buying the records. One of the signal features of soul-era music is its address to a black counter-public, an attempt to pull “the people” together for collective struggle, and to recode negatives as positive (i.e., the funk, blackness itself). “Happy” speaks to and affirms the popular as simple demographics: the largest number of people in voluntaristic terms.

Everything about “Happy,” including those viral videos, is about atomized individuals declaring their individual happiness sotto voce, listening to their own private concert, the song downloaded from iTunes and played through their earbuds. Its only wish is that you buy this record, and celebrate the individual successes of black people whose success, Williams’ “new black” strongly implies, depends on waning group identification, an ever expansive amnesia archive, and strenuous disavowal of racism as anything other than an individual problem.It is the active amnesia that allows for the continual erasure and strategic surprise at every racist act or utterance that people “still” act this way.

In Curtis’s words:

Pardon me, brother, while you stand in your glory

I know you won’t mind if I tell the whole story.

Pardon me, brother, I know we’ve come a long, long way

But let us not be so satisfied, for tomorrow can be an even brighter day.

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