The wisdom of pop songs – Can happiness be cool?

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Happy album title, Elvis, but do you really practise what you preach?

For some reason it is more natural to write a song about being unhappy than it is to celebrate good events. ‘This is broken-hearted me with my guitar’ is far more popular than ‘Guess what? I’m feeling good today, like I usually do’.

Yes, people write about being in love, but not so much about being happy for any other reason.

Is that because it’s cool to be miserable? The standard rock group photo shoot isn’t full of grins and teeth, but moody expressions.

Seventies soul-style elation

So let’s look at the expressions of joy that have slipped through the net since Elvis Presley popularized the snarl.

Starting almost bang up to date, Pharrell Williams, who is as talented as he is energetic and seems to be aware of how fortunate he is, followed his Daft Punk-collaboration worldwide smash Get Lucky, with a song called Happy – and he got away with it. It is still being sung in halls and clubs all over the world by people more accustomed to whingeing along with their heroes’ tales of sadness, alienation and how generally unfair life is.

Stevie Wonder reminds us of the joy behind the tragedy of Martin Luther King

The undisputed king of pop happiness, though, is Stevie Wonder. Vivacity leaps from the grooves of his early work, from the virtuoso harmonica-playing 12-year-old of Fingertips to taking the smoochy For Once In My Life and turning it into an ecstatic song of love and thanks.

Wonder can do unhappy as well as anybody, but when the light of life is upon him, the joy pours out. I Was Made to Love Her, Sir Duke, Signed Sealed Delivered, You Are the Sunshine of my Life, Isn’t She Lovely… His brain is such a goldmine of good vibes that he even has material to give to other people: Syreeta’s Spinning and Spinning is pure exhilaration, and when George Michael and Mary J. Blige took on As (I’ll be loving you always) they were simply jumping on a fairground ride.

Giving happiness a bad name, one for the 60s hippies’ grandparents

As an indication of how happy stuff is considered uncool, 1960s goody-goodies The Seekers turned out smiling fluff such as A World of Our Own and Morningtown Ride while The Rolling Stones were busy challenging moral codes and The Beatles were taking us down cos they were going to Strawberry Fields.

On the other hand, that was mainly John Lennon, while Paul McCartney’s career is bejeweled with the likes of Penny Lane, Hello Goodbye, Helen Wheels, Junior’s Farm and even the much-maligned children’s song, We All Stand Together (a mega-catchy tune that could have been given any number of treatments). All You Need Is Love notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine Lennon coming up with the equivalent of Wonderful Christmastime, although he would give in occasionally to sentiment, as in the paean to his son Sean, Beautiful Boy.

ray charles
On the other hand…

Those of us with a tendency towards introspection and a love of insightful music that takes us down rather than up should, perhaps, treat ourselves occasionally to a happy session. It might take a bit of work and head-scratching to find feelgood stuff in the murky depths of a Metallica collection or the bombastic sobbing of 1980s power ballads, but… look… there’s Bryan Adams’s Summer of 69. There’s Queen with You’re My Best Friend, here’s Aretha and George Michael with I Knew You Were Waiting. And here’s Stevie with I Love Every Little Thing About You.

The world is not all bad, and we’ve got the music to prove it.