How This Became the Surprising Protest Song of Our Generation
It's hard to remember that Pharrell wrote "Happy" for an animated film.
The peppy neo-soul song is not in any way controversial. But something strange began happening to it a little while ago. It became a mega pop sensation and an unexpected global anthem for citizens living under troubled regimes.
The movement started slowly — first it was the soundtrack to a video of people dancing joyfully in Paris. But then the song began cropping up in videos from countries in political turmoil. One came from the Philippines, a country still picking up the pieces from Typhoon Haiyan. Soon, one followed from Tunis, still reeling from the aftershocks of the Arab Spring. And then another from Moscow. While not a "protest" song in its traditional sense, Pharrell's "Happy" has taken on a politically charged meaning as an anthem of international resilience.
It's crowning moment as an international protest anthem came late last month when two Polish filmmakers used it as a soundtrack to a viral video of violent clashes between Ukrainian citizens and government forces intercut with protestors in Kiev dancing. It is haunting to see protesters in Kiev dancing among barricades and answering frankly what would make them happy. "To be happy I need the Ukraine to be free," one woman answered.
It seems odd, at face value, that this totally innocuous song has taken on such significance. But "Happy" caters to the 21st-century protest. The pop songs dominating today's charts may not be as politically charged as the music of the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Era, but the beauty of contemporary pop music is its wide reach — ubiquitous, international and infinitely remixable. "Happy" was a blank canvas, and the Internet turned it from Oscar nominee into the sound of rebellion and resilience, even in unrest.
Pharrell's unironic and unequivocal call to positivity makes it a strange member of the protest music genre, which mostly targets specific injustices. The 1960s is teeming with examples. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," for instance, seethes at the killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the bombing of an Alabama Church. Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" openly criticizes the American military system. And during the early years of the Iraq War, there was a flurry of anti-war, anti-Bush and anti-status quo music — just recall Neil Young's "Let's Impeach the President" or Green Day's "American Idiot." But things have been changing for protest music, and "Happy" is a huge shift from even our Bush-era protests.
"A lot of the differences between protest music in the '60s and today mostly have to do with differences in the music industry," said Jack Hamilton, Slate's pop critic and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder's Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture. "It might well be more difficult to release a politically-charged album on a major label than it was in the 1960s, but it's definitely a lot easier to make politically-charged music and have it reach a large number of people than it's ever been."
And similarly, it's easy for a song like "Happy" to become a call to action across borders. It's completely random — at first glance — but that's the magic of this global music culture. Pharrell perhaps never intended "Happy" to be more than a catchy summer hit, but even a perfectly-oiled pop machine can't account for the creative capacity of the whole world. "Happy" came into the world apolitical, but it's something more now — it's a song of resilience and resolve under incredible hardship.