My downstairs neighbors have a habit of getting wine-drunk and singing old songs. They generally break out stuff like “Love Shack” or “We Are Family.” Sometimes, it’s just indistinguishable shrieking. Usually, it’s extremely annoying. But a few weeks ago, while I was cooking something for dinner and enjoying a moment of solitude, I heard a sound that made me really happy. It was the chorus of Sheryl Crow’s 1996 single “If It Makes You Happy,” a song that I, too, have shrieked along to with a gaggle of friends. “IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY/ IT CAN’T BE THAT BAD/ IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY/ THEN WHY THE HELL ARE YOU SO SAD?” The sound of that chorus emanated from the floorboards, clear as anything. Nothing about these lyrics is particularly special, but the feeling you get when you’re yelling along to them is immeasurable. It’s like magic. I couldn’t help but sing with them.
That particular feeling of catharsis, the one you get when the entire world seems to fall away and all that exists is you and a song you’re screaming, if only for a moment, occurs in a lot of places. It’s the “Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my FACE!” in Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”; the “hooooooooold me closer!” in “Tiny Dancer.” It’s pretty much the entirety of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” or Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” It’s the music that brings the kind of joy you can’t really explain, you can only experience. The chorus of “If It Makes You Happy” was designed to make you want to participate; it’s a life-affirming piece of pop, something you can put on at the end of a long shitty day and feel renewed.
Lately we’ve witnessed a lot of “If It Makes You Happy” sing-alongs. Last month Best Coast covered it on Valentine’s Day at a benefit for Planned Parenthood; Maggie Rogers brought Sharon Van Etten onstage to duet the song last summer; Screaming Females recorded a version for The AV Club back in 2012, and they’ve performed the song live in years since. FIDLAR did it in 2015, and Kelly Clarkson took it on as a fan request onstage in Chicago that same year.
Most recently, newcomer Phoebe Bridgers was joined by Conor Oberst and Soccer Mommy for a lively rendition of Crow’s song at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg. “The way I feel about this song is the way I feel about Sheryl. She may have put out a duet with Kid Rock but if she makes me happy, she can’t be that bad. I think this is the perfect pop song. No matter how I’m feeling, I really can’t listen to this song and stay mad,” Bridgers told me over email. It is a song that artists love to sing, perhaps because it encourages a certain level of audience participation, a total crowd-pleaser.
Of course, “If It Makes You Happy” is not some random unearthed gem of yesteryear. When Crow released the song on her 1996 self-titled album, “If It Makes You Happy” was the lead single and an instant radio hit. It was co-written by Jeff Trot, a guitarist and singer/songwriter who is best known for working with Crow on some of her biggest hits including “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” “Strong Enough,” and “Soak Up The Sun.” The song peaked at #10 on the Hot 100 and it eventually won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance at the Grammys the following year. It’s the kind of song that seems like it’s existed for centuries, a song that everyone knows the chorus to.
Its ubiquity over 20 years since its release isn’t indebted to many pop culture references, but there is that one scene from the 2002 film Crossroads. It goes like this: Small town BFFs played by Britney Spears, Zoe Saldana, and Taryn Manning are on a cross-country road trip with their hot new man friend. The trio have just graduated from high school and they have both a literal and metaphorical long road ahead of them. When “If It Makes You Happy” comes on the radio the three girls start singing along as if all of those quirky lyrics are somehow imprinted in their DNA.
But that’s it. That’s the most notable appearance of “If It Makes You Happy” in a piece of media aside from the memorable video, which finds Crow performing in a series of Extremely ’90s outfits at LA’s Natural History Museum. Her hair is straightened and she sings directly to the camera; it’s confrontational but it’s also a little silly, a patchwork of ideas that leave you thinking that the ’90s were a strange time. “If It Makes You Happy” seems to be maintained by karaoke bars and by songwriters who grew up hearing it play on the radio the same way it did in Crossroads. Crow has a unique appeal; her music is definitely pop, it’s guitar-driven, it’s country-ish but not country enough to really be country. In fact, “If It Makes You Happy” was originally written as a country song, before it was transformed into a rock number to make it more radio friendly.
That should be obvious. “If It Makes You Happy” initiates with the twang of a guitar and a drawl vocal styling. Country music’s reigning cool girl Kacey Musgraves broke into “If It Makes You Happy” while touring Pageant Material in Nashville, where Crow lives with her two kids. Crow herself walked onstage after the first chorus to perform the second half. (Artists love singing “If It Makes You Happy” with Sheryl Crow. Ryan Adams did it at ACL in 2004, and Elvis Costello and Neko Case did a version with her in 2009.) Musgraves and Crow grinned at one another when they sang what is inarguably the best lyric to the song: “OK, I still get stoned/ I’m not the kind of girl you take home.” It’s a joy to watch Musgraves, who was applauded for writing a country song that references weed, sing that lyric alongside Crow, a songwriter who’s always managed to sneak both humor and pathos into her hits. The two have a lot in common.
Aside from its rousing chorus, “If It Makes You Happy” is a weird song. Lyrically, I mean. On paper, it reads as a series of non-sequiturs, a laundry list of stuff that rhymes and sounds good together even though it might not make all that much sense. “I put on a poncho, played for mosquitoes/ And drank ‘til I was thirsty again,” meets us from the outset, before Crow recalls a time she scoured “thrift store jungles” for a few collectibles. Like Geronimo’s rifle, Benny Goodman’s cursive pen, and Marilyn Monroe’s shampoo. On the original country version, that line is actually “Marilyn’s lipstick.” When Crow performed the song live in Detroit in ‘99, she changed that lyric to “Marilyn’s dildo” which is, of course, the superior choice of the three.
Crow’s wordplay has always been a unique element of her songwriting and a lot of her most popular songs have goofy little adages thrown in. “If It Makes You Happy” contains her most memorable. It’s a mainstream song about feeling like an outsider, or at least, a person who’s a little too unhinged to be everyone’s favorite Girl Next Door. In this song, that’s something to be proud of, so it’s unsurprising that there are so many young Crow disciples performing her hits over 20 years after “If It Makes You Happy” debuted. It is a song that makes you want to keep on keepin’ on, even when you’re the reason you’re so miserable in the first place.