Happy by Pharrell Williams: Why this song has grabbed the nation

Feb 11, 2014
Pharrell Williams in the Happy video

Pharrell found the secret to making Britain happy with an accidental mega-hit. Eamonn Forde discovers how he did it

 
You know when a song has gone that one step further and connects with people of all ages when it gets the crowd at the World Indoor Bowls Championships in Great Yarmouth clapping and grooving along. Happy by Pharrell Williams did exactly that, stealing the show from Shaun ‘Barry From EastEnders’ Williamson who thought he had wrapped it up with his grunting version of Something Inside So Strong during the intermission.

Happy has sold more than 650,000 copies so far in the UK, was being played more than 5,500 times a week on British radio at its peak and has become a viral YouTube hit (notably a girl dancing down the street to it like it was a Northern Soul classic) but getting an audience reaction like that at the bowls – that’s proper success. It now unashamedly sits in the very heart of the mainstream, capturing the hearts and ears of the nation and making everyone who hears it, well, happy.

Not bad going for a song that was never supposed to be released as a single. Its history is a curious one and drips in serendipity, showing how something in an age of over-marketing can take on a life of its own and pull off the near impossible by appealing to people of all ages.

It was originally released back in June last year, tucked away as track four on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack album, released by the Back Lot Music label. Pharrell had signed to Sony Music and the track was considered a ‘possible’ to appear on his new album, which is due out later this year but has no official release date yet. Then dance and urban station Capital Xtra (formerly Choice FM) started playing it. Pluggers, as is the norm in radio promotion, had not been knocking on its door. They just decided they liked it and put it on heavy rotation. 

“They were hammering the track for a number of months in isolation,” says Neil Hughes, the director of promotions at RCA, the division of Sony Music that Pharrell is signed to in the UK. This coincided with the DVD release of Despicable Me 2 and the launch of the 24HoursOfHappy.com site that featured, as its name suggests, a 24-hour long video for the song featuring cameos from Jamie Foxx, Steve Carell and others. RCA hadn’t even decided what the lead track from the album would be but quickly swung into action, and it was released as a single by the label.

“A good label adapts and reads situations,” says Hughes, talking of the response on radio and of how it has started to sell as a standalone download track in its own right – detached from the film soundtrack. “It was becoming very apparent that this track was very much loved. By the time we had formulated a conventional single plan and took the track to radio fully, it was already top 75 on iTunes. It was an amazing week.”

Radio 1, Capital, Heart and Kiss all jumped on it. More surprisingly, Radio 2 also put it on its A-list, showing that it was appealing beyond just a youth audience. Mums and dads loved it too. This was incredibly rare. “Especially for a track without a conventional release plan behind it,” says Hughes. “It was very unusual for a station to rotate it as heavily as they did and as long as they did without a proper single release date or a video in rotation. Credit to the people at Capital for doing that. They were certainly ahead of the game.” 

Happy went to number one in the UK at the end of December, selling 107,000 copies in its first week. It dropped to number two the next week but was back at number one the following week, then dipping to number two a week later. RCA is confident it will sell one million copies and has weeks, if not months, in the top 10 to come. 

So what is it about the song that has made it so ubiquitous without it becoming irritating?

“It’s a very poppy tune and it transcends a few different genres, so maybe people are more open to it,” suggests Dr Lauren Stewart, a reader in psychology at Goldsmiths in London, who has done lengthy research into ‘earworms’ – those songs that burrow into your brain and are difficult to dislodge. “It made me thing of that OutKast song Hey Ya!, which had a similar quality to it and seemed to be everywhere.”

Key to its success is its musical reiteration and the instructional nature of its lyrics, according to Dr Elizabeth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University Of Arkansas and author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. “That’s a pretty repetitive song,” she says of Happy. “There is a catchy bit that expressly invites you to clap along. It is literally inviting you.” In that sense, Happy is basically an update of If You’re Happy and You Know It (Clap Your Hands) or Don’t Worry, Be Happy.

She adds: “The thing repetition really does is it captures the motor circuitry of the brain, so you have this sense the music is really pulling you along. It can make people feel really happy. There is something about having a song that is literally about being happy that is using this technique that makes people happy. It just feels good.” 

But repetition and irritation are often bedfellows, so it is very tricky to pull off just the right amount of recurrence in a song. “If something is really simple and just does all the ordinary things you’d expect it to do… repetition can seem really annoying,” says Margulis. “If it has enough sparks of new and interesting things going on in there – and not too many to make it overwhelmingly complex – it can get into that sweet spot where you can just listen to it again and again and again and it doesn’t seem to get tired.”

Margulis says that listening can be tightly defined by age or subculture, so being appealing to one often means being unappealing to another. “So often music is a market of group identity,” she says. “So when a song can do that [cross age boundaries], that’s really powerful and unusual.”

Pharrell had, of course, been on the two biggest hits of last year in the UK – Get Lucky (1.28 million sales) and Blurred Lines (1.47 million sales), both of which relied heavily on repetition – so things were clearly in place for him with whatever song he put out, allowing him to step up as the focal point rather than play a side role as guest vocalist. Happy has gone that bit further and has pan-generational appeal. 

“For an artist to sell a significant amount of music in this day and age you need to be applicable to more than one demographic,” says Hughes. “The most recent one I can think of that worked in this way was Get Lucky, which was also a Pharrell track. Get Lucky was an event record, but the difference with that was there was an awful lot of clever build-up before they launched the project, whereas this is very much a slow-burner.”

RCA is considering when to launch the next single to bridge into the album but, for now, is happy to let Happy run its course on radio. “With something like this, you just have to let it live and breathe and do its thing,” suggests Hughes. “What happens with these things, if you try and force another single in, that second single then just doesn’t have the same impact.”

What is also exceptional about its success is that Pharrell has done no promotion for it in the UK. “Normally something this successful would have involved the artist coming in and doing TV performances and interviews,” argues Hughes. “The first thing that he is going to be doing in the UK for it is to come and do the Brit Awards [on February 19]. That is very unusual in itself. To have the natural momentum it has had and to be selling at that level is extremely rare.”

Happy is going to be everywhere for months to come, lifting spirits and putting springs in steps. Just as he defined the sound of 2013, Pharrell looks set to provide the soundtrack to 2014 – but this time with him in the spotlight and, happily, all on the song’s own terms.

By Eamonn Forde

The Big Issue no 1125
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