The Number Ones

September 24, 1988

The Number Ones: Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was a #1 jam. Damn, if I say it, you can slap me right here.

Hit songs have lives beyond anything their creators could’ve possibly intended. Bobby McFerrin is a true one-hit wonder; “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” his sole #1 hit, is also the only McFerrin song that’s ever charted on the Hot 100 at all. At least in part, that’s by design. McFerrin has carved out a fascinating and successful career in music, and virtually all of that career has played out far away from the pop charts. But the one McFerrin song that did catch on serves as a living symbol of bumper-sticker philosophy and Reagan-era complacency. That’s not exactly Bobby McFerrin’s fault; he never could’ve foreseen the places that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” would go. But “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” fucking sucks, and that is Bobby McFerrin’s fault.

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” remains the only completely a capella #1 hit in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. We’ve had plenty of hit songs where people made funny screeches, percussive plops, and goofy sound-effects with their mouths, but “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is the only song where those things are the entire song. We got through the entire doo-wop era without any all-voice singles reaching the top spot, and lord willing, we’ll also get through the age of YouTube and TikTok novelties without it happening again. Bobby McFerrin is a one of one, a true anomaly. His chart-topping feat would be truly impressive if the song were any good. But once again, it’s not any good. It’s radiant, nuclear-charged dogshit.

McFerrin deserves to be remembered for more than the time he infected the world with a noxious smarm-cloud of a song, and he probably will be. McFerrin, a New York native, is part of a proud lineage of boundary-breaking musicians. Robert McFerrin, Bobby’s father, was an operatic baritone singer who served in World War II and then became first Black man ever to sing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In the 1959 film version of Porgy And Bess, we see Sidney Poitier singing, but the sound we hear is Robert McFerrin’s voice. Meanwhile, Bobby McFerrin’s mother Sara taught voice at Fullerton College in LA. Bobby was around to see everything his parents did; he was four years old when Robert debuted at the Met in 1955.

As a young man, Bobby McFerrin played jazz keyboards. He formed his first band in high school, and he went on to become a touring keyboardist with the Ice Follies and a piano-bar performer in Salt Lake City. Eventually, McFerrin figured out that he wanted to sing, and he spent years practicing and honing his style. Bill Cosby helped McFerrin get booked at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1980, and a performance at New York’s Kool Jazz Festival the next year got McFerrin a deal with Elektra. McFerrin released his self-titled debut album in 1982, when he was 32. (A few years ago, when “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” turned 30, Brad Shoup wrote a very cool Stereogum story on McFerrin’s unlikely career. I’m just giving the highlights here.)

As a performer, McFerrin’s big innovation was to stretch out established ideas of what the human voice could do. He’d keep time by tapping his chest, and he’d sing vocal melodies and complicated basslines at the same time. McFerrin recorded his 1984 album The Voice entirely by himself, with no overdubs, and it stands as a very cool party trick of an album. McFerrin’s whole jazz style was gentle and pleasant, just as a listening experience, but its real selling point was the simple idea that this guy was making all of these sounds himself, without instruments.

The Voice made Bobby McFerrin famous, but it didn’t make him hitmaker famous. McFerrin won a bunch of jazz Grammys, and at Bill Cosby’s request, he sang the season-four theme song for The Cosby Show. (I don’t feel great about mentioning Bill Cosby twice in one column, but he’s part of the story here.) McFerrin also showed up in a 1988 Levis commercial and, two years later, another one for Ocean Spray. McFerrin had credibility in jazz and classical circles, but if not for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” he might be largely remembered as a weird little curio of ’80s culture — a figure like Michael Winslow, the guy who made the sound effects in the Police Academy movies, or like John Moschitta Jr., the guy who talked really fast in the Micro Machines commercials.

McFerrin’s 1988 album Simple Pleasures was originally supposed to be a collection of covers. Instead, it’s merely half an album of covers; five of the LP’s ten tracks are McFerrin doing a cappella takes on ’60s rock oldies like the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” and the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” It’s genuinely impressive to hear McFerrin replicate the guitar solo from “Sunshine Of Your Love” with his mouth. (Cream’s original “Sunshine Of Your Love,” from 1968, peaked at #5. It’s a 9.) Plans changed when McFerrin recorded a version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” at the suggestion of his manager Linda Goldstein, who also produced the album. McFerrin had been toying around with the song for a few years, improvising new versions of it at club shows. Half of Simple Pleasures ended up being McFerrin’s own songs, and he led the album off with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

The phrase “don’t worry, be happy” existed in the world before McFerrin wrote the song. McFerrin may have encountered it on a poster of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual leader who kept a 44-year vow of silence and who had a whole flock of Western admirers, including Pete Townshend, who used his name in the title of the Who’s song “Baba O’Riley.” Baba would write “don’t worry, be happy” in his correspondence with Western followers, and some of them started printing the phrase on things.

On the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” McFerrin aimed for the kind of simplicity and contentment that the phrase implied. On the track, McFerrin mentions a bunch of reasons why someone might want to worry — homelessness, litigious landlords, lack of style, lack of romantic companionship — and he advises letting all that go and embracing some vague amorphous bliss. Near the end of the song, McFerrin sort of reveals the logic behind his thinking: “When you worry, your face will frown/ And that will bring everybody down.” Bobby McFerrin doesn’t care about your problems; he just doesn’t want your problems to harsh his mellow.

McFerrin might have meant the song satirically, or at least not fully seriously; there’s cutesy mugging all through the track that gives him a certain plausible deniability. But when a song like that becomes a cultural phenomenon, it loses any sense of nuance that it might’ve had in the first place. And I’m very skeptical of the idea that there’s any nuance in “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Speaking personally, I have absolutely no use for the kind of think-positive mindset that the song advocates. I’m ready to take its simpering self-satisfaction at face value and to look at the song as the kind of kitty-poster claptrap that has never solved one single problem in my life. When I was talking about the song with my wife today, she used the phrase “toxic positivity.” That’s pretty much what I hear when I hear “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Other than the general novelty of an all-a cappella pop song, I don’t hear anything musically redeeming in “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” either. The forced calm of the thing — the Andy Griffith-ass whistling, the meandering doo-wop bass tones, the little fake-reggae doot-doots — mostly works to stress me out. Also, I hate McFerrin’s fake accent so much. McFerrin later said that he wasn’t trying to sound Jamaican when he recorded the song. Instead, he was going for Mexican. Still, millions of people evidently think that McFerrin was Jamaican — or, rather, that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is actually a song from the most famous Jamaican musician of all time. If you search the song’s title on YouTube, the second video that pops up is McFerrin’s song, but it’s credited to Bob Marley. Right now, that video has 158 million views. Bob Marley had been dead for seven years when McFerrin wrote “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but many, many people evidently think it’s a Bob Marley song. We’re all so stupid.

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” doesn’t make a lot of sense as a pop song, but it got a big boost from appearing on the soundtrack of Cocktail, a terrible movie in which Tom Cruise plays Maverick from Top Gun if Maverick from Top Gun was somehow a bartender instead of a fighter pilot. There’s an extended interlude in the film where Cruise tends bar in Jamaica, and apparently the producers decided that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” sounded sufficiently Jamaican, so they threw it in there. Cocktail was a huge hit, taking in $72 million at the box office; on the list of 1988’s highest earners, Cocktail sits at #8, right between the first Die Hard and the first Naked Gun. (Cruise’s other 1988 movie was Rain Man, the year’s biggest hit. The man was on a run.)

The Cocktail soundtrack was also a big deal. Bobby McFerrin’s album Simple Pleasures went gold — pretty great for a covers-heavy album of novelty a cappella jazz-pop. But the Cocktail soundtrack was much, much bigger. The Cocktail album went to #2 on the album charts and went quadruple platinum. Very soon, another nugget from that soundtrack will appear in this column.

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” also had an association with another movie star. In the song’s video, McFerrin mugs frantically with Robin Williams, who’d just been in Good Morning, Vietnam and crossed over to big-deal status. Robin Williams never met a fake ethnic accent he didn’t love; “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” must’ve been his favorite fucking song. The clip is mostly just ferociously twee physical-comedy mime stuff from Williams, McFerrin, and pratfalling vaudeville comedian Bill Irwin. If you’re a fan of clown-ass shit, then the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” video is for you. It is absolutely nothing but clown-ass shit.

Around the same time that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” reached #1, George H.W. Bush started using it as his campaign song, without McFerrin’s permission. Linda Goldstein, McFerrin’s manager and producer, sent a letter to the Bush campaign objecting to the use of the song. Bush’s campaign invited McFerrin to have dinner with the vice president, and McFerrin declined. Instead, McFerrin, a Democrat, publicly endorsed Michael Dukakis, and the Bush campaign stopped using the song. Instead, Bush went with “This Land Is Your Land,” which is frankly hilarious, but I guess Woody Guthrie wasn’t alive enough to make any noise about it. Given how that election went, maybe Bobby McFerrin should’ve worried.

The entire idea of a sitting vice president using “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as a campaign song speaks to a political climate that I frankly can’t imagine, though I was alive when it was happening. The message, I guess, was: Everything’s going great! Let’s have some more of this! And it worked! It’s just baffling. What a stultifying embrace of the status quo. What a refusal to even consider the thought that maybe things could be better. Fuck 1988. Maybe Bobby McFerrin didn’t mean to write a song in praise of societal stagnation, but when you write a song like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” you run that risk.

To his great credit, McFerrin didn’t have any desire to replicate the success of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The song won Grammys for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year — fucking pathetic — but McFerrin soon stopped performing it entirely. Instead, McFerrin took other gigs, like scoring the 1989 Pixar short Knick Knack and performing “Pink Panther Theme” in 1993’s Return Of The Pink Panther. In 1990, McFerrin made his debut as an orchestra conductor. Ever since then, McFerrin has traveled the world, doing guest-conductor gigs with various symphonies and leading improvisatory vocal exercises with big crowds. I cannot imagine sitting in one of these audiences, but captured on video, his work looks extremely cool.

These days, Bobby McFerrin’s kids are active, too. Bobby’s son Taylor McFerrin is a beatboxer, producer, and jazz musician. Taylor put out an album on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label in 2014 — Bobby guested on it — and he’s now part of Robert Glasper’s jazz supergroup R+R=Now. Bobby’s daughter Madison McFerrin has gotten a lot of Pitchforky buzz for her own a cappella version of dancey neo-soul.

So: Bobby McFerrin. A cool guy with a cool family. An artistic traveler who figures out new uses for the human voice and who seems like he’d probably be a great hang. And yet he still loosed “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” into the world, like a plague. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, the makers of the novelty toy Big Mouth Billy Bass sold millions upon millions of singing animatronic rubber fishes, most of which were presumably gag gifts to family members who really didn’t want them. For another couple of years, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” became inescapable again.

Fuck that fish.

GRADE: 1/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 1995 Beavis & Butt-Head episode where the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” video precipitates a couch brawl between Beavis and Butt-Head:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” makes frequent appearances in movies, where directors use it to gain easy irony points. Here, for instance, is the scene where the song shows up in 2006’s Jarhead:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2008 masterpiece Wall-E where Wall-E’s Big Mouth Billy Bass sings “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and almost gets lasered into oblivion:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the part from 2018’s Hotel Transylvania 3 where “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” charms a giant sea monster:

(Adam Sandler’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “The Chanukah Song,” peaked at #80. The highest-charting single from Andy Samberg’s group the Lonely Island,” the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” peaked at #30.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2020, the comedian Lil Duval recorded a version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with T.I., a once-beloved rapper who is now on his way to Bill Cosby status. Here’s the video:

(Lil Duval’s highest-charting single, the 2018 Snoop Dogg/Ball Greezy collab “Smile Bitch,” peaked at #56. T.I. will eventually appear in this column.)

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