“It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break”
Pharrell dances shortly after sunrise, skipping and dancing downhill through a vacant L.A. street. There is no method here, no pre-planned dance or final twist. The video is a simple, continuous tracking shot observing Pharrell’s every move.
Throughout the song’s three minutes and 53 seconds, Pharrell comes across as fun-loving and charming; and yeah – he’s happy. His dance moves grow increasingly cheesy. He does jazz hands. He does that Pee-wee Herman dance move and somehow makes it look cool. Way cooler than Pee-wee, at least.
The next four minutes are less charming. A woman takes his place, dancing along to Pharrell’s “Happy (from Despicable Me 2)” as best she can, but she seems to have considerably less experience. She seems slightly self-conscious, slightly more aware of her limitations. Her route takes her past obtrusive shrubberies and up giant hills. She has to dodge the occasional car. We can only assume that she has been asked to act happy.
Pharrell Williams is respected by almost every pop music patron as a prolific and inspired songwriter, one who excels at peppy songs that often dominate our mindspace throughout the day. He’s one of the few pop music writers whose songs we sing to ourselves with genuine appreciation rather than sardonic irony. His songs are almost exclusively positive in nature, and for the modern music fan, they serve a practical purpose: like those old self-help cassette tapes repeating positive phrases (“You are valuable. You are in charge. You are your own person. You appreciate yourself.”), they help us to act happy.
I could never be a part of this 24-hour video, a record both for Pharrell and the recording industry. I’ve always been entirely too self-conscious to dance in front of people that way. I’m unable to take my mind off of myself and the idiotic pelvic thrusts, arm movements and head bobs that everyone around me must be shaking their head at.
For someone with as little actual confidence as I have, dancing is, well, impossible.
“I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care, baby, by the way”
Multiple times throughout the 24 hours, dancers decide to interact with the unsuspecting audience that surrounds them. Sometimes they are entertained and amused. The lead of the moment gets to play like a celebrity. The cameras follow, a tracking shot leading them into the street. The surrounding crowd understands who the focus is here; interacting with bystanders is a calculated risk. The public is a gamble. Interactions are quick and surface-level, and may involve stealing hats or borrowing scooters, maybe a high five or two.
It’s also evident that the audience isn’t quite as invested. They’re not sure if it is merely a YouTube thing by a no-name person. Because Pharrell Williams isn’t there, they have no idea if this is his thing. They are skeptical. Most of them maintain the position of spectators rather than participants. Some of them carefully slink outside of the frame. As someone dances past a suburban yard, a man watering his lawn stops and stares, almost comically, until he is finally out of frame. He is scenery.
Pharrell Williams also performed “Happy” at the Oscars, as one of the nominees for Best Original Song in a film. At first the performance was fairly standard: Pharrell surrounded himself with a clan of well-trained dancers (who were just absolutely killing it, in addition to appearing to thoroughly enjoy themselves). Then Pharrell made his way into the audience, dancing with Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams. The dancers became scenery.
You might have noticed the significant audible presence of a church choir during that particular performance, much more pronounced and substantial than it is on the studio recording. The choir is foregrounded sonically rather than a toned-down backup. But during the performance itself, within that framed television image, I couldn’t find the choir anywhere. Just dancers, celebrities, and Pharrell Williams.
When I’m feeling self-conscious around others, I start making jokes, often about my own challenges and struggles. I use the comments and questions of others as opportunities for hilarious punchlines. I leave feeling triumphant but strangely empty.
“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth”
At 3 p.m., Pharrell performs for the camera in a small Baptist church. He performs “Happy” with unprecedented enthusiasm, and the church choir bounces and waves their hands behind him, singing gleefully. It’s at this moment in the 24-hour video that I wonder what this video is even about. Why is he happy? What is he happy about?
There’s nothing in the lyrics to clarify the answer to this question. It operates off of one of two assumptions: the listeners already have their own reasons for happiness, or the listeners insist on being happy despite lack of reasons. Fair enough.
The camera follows Pharrell as he runs up to the church choir loft and stands on the railing, towering above the choir. The camera pans up to follow him but can only pan so high. The bottom of a cross pokes slightly into frame, and the camera quickly pans down again. The cross remains, for the duration of this particular four minutes, just out of sight.
I go to church a lot. I have to. When I miss a week, I feel disconnected and lost. For a while I thought it was because I missed God. I thought I needed those sermons to help me to press on in the midst of hardship. I needed more spiritual truth intake, more focus, more time in that building. I needed more time staring at that cross behind the pastor, closing my eyes and worshipping my God.
“Clap along if you know what happiness is to you”
Immediately after Pharrell performs in front of the church choir, the camera pans toward an old man in a pew, sitting alone. His clothes are ragged. He seems pensive and melancholy, but when those four opening musical chords play, he shoots out of the pew and dances freely through the church, venturing into the halls. He doesn’t seem to know the words. He bobs and sways, narrowly missing walls and innocent bystanders. I think he is drunk.
I discovered my love for beer late in life, when I was 28 years old, while I was losing my father to cancer and my wife to other men. I never got drunk, but I used it to dull the pain, to loosen my inhibitions while commiserating with friends. I used it to cope. And in those moments that I drank, in those moments when I was loose and free and surrounded by friends, I was happy.
But every night I went home and slept in a queen-size bed – a bed with two sides – and I slept alone, with one side empty. I sobered up, fell asleep, and soldiered on.
“Here comes bad news talking this and that
Give me all you got and don’t hold back
I should probably warn you, I’ll be just fine
No offense to you, don’t waste your time”
Well after dark, several dancers prance through the downtown streets. I think of them as brave more than happy. Dancing around downtown L.A. at midnight seems risky at best. But, of course, they’ll be fine, because they have a camera pointed at them and a crew of people presumably occupying a significant amount of space behind the camera. They have people on their side, looking out for them.
As dancers lip-synch lyrics insisting that bad news won’t bring them down from their self-enforced utopia, they prance past closed storefronts and dark alleyways. There are homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, just to the left of the frame.
In this case, these dancers have a vested interest to keep the song going, to keep dancing no matter what, passersby and homeless people be damned. They are having fun. When faced with anything that might short-circuit that, the response is a curt “no offense to you, don’t waste your time.”
This is the gift Pharrell Williams’ pop music can give to us. We can easily sing his music without irony or discontent because the music exists in a world in which dissatisfaction is a mortal sin.
Pop music’s typical brand of escapism, often touted as a good-natured attempt to bring a little laughter, happiness, or smiles to the world, can also be a force for a destructive, self-centered optimistic isolationism that excludes the rest of the world in an effort to keep one’s own mind bright and cheery. “No offense to you,” we say to the bearer of bad news. “Don’t waste your time.” The problem isn’t the self-obsession, but the utter lack of truthfulness.
Ultimately, “Happy” is a child playing make-believe, all fun and games until an adult has to inform him that he needs to get out of the middle of the road. Closing our eyes, plugging our ears and shouting, “I can’t hear you!” can only stave off the hurt for so long.
I didn’t long for church because I longed for God. He was always there. I longed for church because I longed for the people in that church, the same people who embraced me in the midst of a divorce and the death of my father, the same people who withstood my dark, desperate humor, the same people who helped me to move on without minimizing my life as “bad news.”
I was remarried two years later. We had our wedding inside that same church, with those same people. There was to be no alcohol at the reception, which bothered me a lot, because we wanted people to dance, and after all, these are Baptists we’re talking about. But I’ll never forget that moment when the DJ told everyone it was time to dance. My eyes well up with tears sometimes when I think about it.
After several hours of sacred and solemn vows, heartfelt toasts, meaningful greetings, and friendly hugs, everyone got up and ran to the dance floor as an unstoppable mass. They danced for us, but we were no longer celebrities in that room. To each their own, but everyone was for everyone else. We danced for one another. We danced toward one another. We danced away from ourselves. We danced with joy.