It might seem crazy, what I’m ’bout to say: you might be hearing Pharrell’s “Happy” for a long time to come.
After ten weeks at number one, the buoyant “Despicable Me 2” theme song bowed out of the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 to make room for John Legend’s “All of Me” on May 10th. Nonetheless, the song crossed over from “big hit” to “phenomenon” right around the beginning of March, when Pharrell performed the track on the Oscars, rousing the likes of Lupita Nyong’o and Meryl Streep from their seats and charming a global audience with the song’s infectious energy. It’s only grown in ubiquity since – tribute videos, a charming cover by Majesty Rose on American Idol, even the source of some teary-eyed musing on Oprah. (The song even played a role in an overseas issue of free speech, as a group of Iranian youths were arrested for posting a video of themselves dancing to the song last week.)
Why “Happy”? Why now? That’s a question for the ages. It speaks to the strange permeability of the pop music hierarchy that Pharrell spent years creating spaces for other performers from Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake to Miley Cyrus and Usher to shine, only to emerge in the past year as a singing/dancing/rapping force all his own. The transition hasn’t been quite so linear, of course. Pharrell released a moderately successful solo album in 2006, and he’s always been pop’s most recognizable behind-the-scenes player, with only Timbaland approaching his level of stardom independent of his more famous collaborators.
But “Happy” is different. It’s the culmination of a year that included Pharrell’s domination of the “featured” credit on the Billboard charts. Between Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” Pharrell spent the better part of last year crafting and supporting the most popular songs on the radio. When he started to appear on every major superstar’s new album, seemingly accumulating a discography to rival a twenty-year industry veteran in a single year, the cult around Pharrell as a stealth guru of American popular taste began to coalesce.
Perhaps one of the appeals of “Happy” is the way it stumbled into its success. It was first released as part of Phrarell’s soundtrack for “Despicable Me 2,” last year’s fourth highest-grossing movie at the box office. Reviews were positive, and the song likely soundtracked many parents’ drives home from the movie theater in July and August, but pop radio was too consumed with Pharrell’s other output to concern itself with this sparkly, sprightly gem. Then in November, Pharrell released “24 Hours of Happy,” an outrageously ambitious project consisting of celebrities and laymen alike dancing to the bouncy song for, you guessed it, a full day. Only then did momentum shift in the song’s favor. Pop radio caught on, and the song took off, garnering an Oscar nomination and charming several generations of listeners simultaneously.
The song isn’t thematically revolutionary, but its unadulterated joy is surprisingly rare on the pop charts. Of the three 2014 songs that preceded “Happy” in the top spot on the Hot 100, two of them had a significantly dark vibe, evident even in their titles. Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster” and Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” are hardly pessimistic, but they express confusion and menace where “Happy” projects sincere glee. Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” is more optimistic, but its lyrical hook (“It’s going down! I’m yelling timber!”) suggests a room with a roof. “Happy” doesn’t even acknowledge that there are problems in the world that Pharrell is willing to momentarily ignore. For four minutes, the world is a genuinely pleasant place.
(It’s worth noting that “Happy” has its haters. I know a few personally. Any song that’s as ubiquitous as this one will wear thin. It’s remarkable this one hasn’t grown tiresome for more people, really.)
It doesn’t hurt that the song appears to have been scientifically engineered for maximum catchiness and repeat appeal. The drum beats in the opening seconds, the effusive harmonies supporting the simple but effective chorus, the clapping breakdown at the bridge, even Pharrell’s exhale at the end of the word “roof” – these moments ensure that the song sticks in the memory in spite of its fundamental lightness. The song uses its lack of tension to its advantage. The combination of ingenious craftsmanship and relentlessly positive lyrics is lethal, especially coupled with the ebullient music video and Pharrell’s built-in goodwill. That Pharrell wrote and produced the song on his own, without the conventional assistance of a team of reliable hitmaking industry types, only makes the song’s achievements more impressive. It’s simultaneously a singular expression of an artist’s vision and a palatable interpretation of a universal feeling.
Pop music always complements and comments upon the world for which it provides a soundtrack, in car stereos and at birthday parties, through massive speakers and tiny earbuds. The success of “Happy” tells us that there’s a market for brief snippets of blissful disregard for everything that brings us down. I have a feeling we’ll be clapping along for years to come, in the hopes that a roof won’t appear above our heads.