I find Pharrell’s massive hit “Happy” really, really irritating. And, for that reason, I love it. In the same way that The Sex Pistols were Malcolm McLaren’s massive joke on us, this song is, I think, Pharrell’s attempt to pull a fast one on the economy of viral “upworthiness”–an economy that, as David has shown, is really racist.
So, before I get into “Happy,” let me first explain what I mean by the “viral economy of upworthiness.” To be really simplistic, what I mean by the term is this: the rhizomatic, exponential spread of positive affect (“upworthiness”) across social media, which uses fan labor (ie., the labor of sharing and spreading) to generate profits for media corporations (both the social media corporations, like YouTube, and the record companies, who profit from each play/click.) In a way, the viral economy of upworthiness is a lot like finance capital–instead of algorithmically intensifying money, this economy algorithmically intensifies positive feelings and/or affects. For example, as David argues, Upworthy videos “zoom in on heroic moments that are emotionally powerful”; Upworthy banks on the viral spread of these good feelings. The viral economy of upworthiness spreads positive affect like a disease, because the business model only works when happiness spreads like cancer. Social media business models require users to share things (that’s how we make ‘connections’ that generate the oh-so-valuable “data” sold to third parties), and apparently positive affects like happiness are more shareable than negative ones (there’s still no “dislike” button on Facebook, right?). What David’s article brilliantly points out is that this organization of the means of production is also a racialized and imperialist one, one in which non-white, non-Western people do the groundwork for this economy of viral upworthiness. Capitalism says there can be no majority for the pity (Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid--who knew KMFDM basically predicted social media capitalism?), so to speak, so it outsources the work of transforming tragedy or bad feeling into happiness or upworthiness onto the same groups of people who have historically done the white/Western world’s un/undercompensated dirty work.
OK, cheeky music jokes aside, let’s talk about “Happy.”
For a number of reasons, the song sounds manic and anxious. First, there’s the tempo. It’s about 160 BPM. For some reference, Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” (whose first line is “When I get high, get high on speed”) clocks in at 180 BPM, Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” a proper dance banger, is 128 BPM, Kesha & Pitbull’s “Timber” is 130 BPM, as is Fatboy Slim’s “Eat Sleep Rave Repeat.” So, “Happy” is a full 30 BPM faster than most contemporary EDM-pop songs, songs designed for crowds of twentysomethings hopped up on MDMA. In this light, “Happy” seems a bit like a super-sized dose of sonic Adderall, a properly legal and bourgeois dose of speed that helps propel us through our hyperemployed days and perform the upworthy affective labor so many of our jobs demand. We’d need Adderall to make it all the way through the song’s marathon 24-hour video. Perhaps this video is commenting on hyperempolyment and real subsumption, capitalism’s increasing ability to realize its dream of the 24-hour work day? (And seriously, don’t those drawn out “eeeeeee”s in the chorus suggest the clenched-jaws of a speed freak?)
Another reason this song sounds manic and anxious is because, as Kariann Goldschmitt (@kgoldschmitt) pointed out in a conversation we had on Twitter, the song never releases any tension. The song is basically one long plateau with two breaks that build a little bit of tension without releasing it in a hit or a climax (like the soar in “We Found Love,” or the drop in something like “Tsunami” or “Bangarang”). The break from 1:49-2:13 builds sonic tension: the clapping intensifies the rhythmic texture, and the addition of the choir and the resonance of the church sanctuary intensifies the timbre, but the downbeat of the new verse doesn’t release that tension. There’s a condensed version of that intensification at 3:02-3:13, and yet again we are denied a proper climax point. Being “Happy” seems like a lot of affective labor with no payoff–the surplus value of our happiness labor goes to somebody else.
And I think that’s what Pharrell is trying to point out. As I read his performance, he’s slyly critiquing the affective labor “upworthy” white supremacist pop culture requires of black performers.
First, what role to black culture workers play in white supremacist upworthiness? As I have argued before, black culture workers are often like sous-chefs who prep the affective/emotional mise en place for “our” performance of upworthiness (they do the work of “organizing” whites’ ignorance of ongoing racism). That is, they’re supposed to perform positive affects and emotions–like heroic overcoming, as in the example David discusses in his post–that audiences then transform into a higher-order upworthiness. “We” perceive “our” appreciation of “their” performance as evidence of “our” commitment to multiculturalism. However, if black people were manifestly unhappy, that would shatter the myth of post-racial multiculturalism. So, post-racial white supremacy demands blacks play happy. . And that’s just what Pharrell does. He plays happy.(Perhaps this is one reason “Happy” was the song that broke the recent 14-week absence of lead black artists from the top of the Billboard Hot 100? It provided precisely the kind of surplus value people expect from black artists?)
But, there are (at least) two ways that his performance works against the literal interpretation of it as the expression of happiness. First, his vocal performance adopts some strategies used by Billie Holiday to transform banal, racist and sexist Tin Pan Alley rejects into nuanced art songs. Angela Davis discusses Holiday’s “working with and against the platitudinous content” of pop songs (Blues Legacies & Black Feminism, 163) at length. Here, I want to focus on one specific type of vocal embellishment that Holiday uses all the time, and that Pharrell also uses throughout “Happy”: they both mimic, in their vocal melodies, the pitch shifts that people use in spoken language to indicate sarcasm. Holiday does it here in “When a Woman Loves a Man,” which, when taken literally, is a really sexist song. Listen to how she dips down and back up in the first verse (e.g., “just another ma-an,” “she’ll just string al-ong”):
Sure, these are super sexist lyrics. But by mimicking the pitch patterns that Americans use when being sarcastic, Holiday ironizes these lyrics. She’s not endorsing them, she’s making fun of them. This is reinforced by the song’s last line, which doesn’t go down in pitch, but up. In spoken language, that indicates a question: “That’s how it goes, when a woman loves a man?” By phrasing this as a question rather than a declamation, Holiday sarcastically critiques the song’s sexism. Pharrell echoes Holiday’s vocal sarcasm in “Happy”’s verses–for example, listen to how he moves the pitch around on “balloon” at 0:26 in the first verse. There’s also “news” in the beginning of the second verse. The choruses use another type of sarcasm: deadpan. The choruses are sung almost entirely on the same pitch. This mimics the flat deadpan one uses to indicate that you don’t fully believe what you’re saying or reiterating, often because you’re expected/forced to say it.
So, I think there’s a good bit of musical evidence that Pharrell is critiquing the white supremacist expectation that he perform upworthiness for white audiences. But his visual performance also gives us some evidence that he’s pulling a fast one on us: his hat.
He wears the hat throughout the video, but it’s central to his overall ‘brand’ at the moment. It even has its own Twitter account. So, this hat is important.
The hat is a vintage Vivienne Westwood hat. As Alison Davis notes over at The Cut, this is the same style hat that Malcolm McLaren wore in his hip hop video, “Buffalo Gals.”
This is the same Malcolm McLaren who formed and managed The Sex Pistols–mainly as a huge art prank. McLaren was the master of “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle”. The “swindle” here is that the joke is on us–the Pistols are basically a prank, a massive troll designed to rile up the general public. The Pistols aren’t authentic working-class rebellion–they’re manufactured for some too-clever art-school condescension at bourgeois moralism.
And that’s precisely what “Happy” is–it’s trolling bourgeois upworthiness. That’s what the hat is supposed to tell us: in the same way that McLaren was trolling Thatcherites, Pharrell is trolling Obama/upworthy liberals.
Most (white) people seem to take the song literally. They don’t get the sarcasm, or the troll. Perhaps the question this song begs most is: Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
This accords with what Sara Ahmed says in her famous “Feminist Killjoys” essay: “Marilyn Frye argues that oppression involves the requirement that you show signs of being happy with the situation in which you find yourself. As she puts it, “it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signify our docility and our acquiescence in our situation.” To be oppressed requires that you show signs of happiness, as signs of being or having been adjusted. For Frye “anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous”.”
Robin is on Twitter as @doctaj.
This will also be my last post for a few weeks–I’m traveling three weeks in a row for speaking gigs: 4/17 at Stony Brook, 4/23 at Colby College, and May 2-5 at Penn State. If you’re near any of those places, I’d love it if you came to my talks! Hit me up on twitter for details.