The Number Ones

March 8, 2014

The Number Ones: Pharrell’s “Happy”

Stayed at #1:

10 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. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

What was life like before the Minions? I wish I could remember. Those obnoxious little Chicklet freaks have been yipping and squawking and doing their Three Stooges routines for 14 years, and they might never stop. As a father, I am somehow obligated to take my children to the theater to see any movie that has a Minion in it. Most of the time, I love taking my kids to the movies. When the fucking Minions show up, however, I disconnect from my body and let my consciousness float off into the ether. It’s all I can do. If I were to snap back into my senses, I would have to look at another Minion.

They’ve ruined a perfectly good word. That Liz Phair line about “I’ll fuck you and your minions, too”? It used to be shocking. It’s still shocking, but now it’s shocking in a very different way. The other kind of shocking was better. At least, I think it was. It’s hard to remember. After all, that was the time before Minions.

The Minions gibbered and pratfell their way into the cultural imagination in the 2010 film Despicable Me, and they have refused to leave. Despicable Me is the story of a guy named Gru who’s trying to be the world’s greatest supervillain, which involves stealing the moon? But then, as part of his plan, he adopts three adorable orphan kids? And learns how to love? And then stops being a villain? That’s all from memory. Don’t quote me on any of it. I refuse to read the Despicable Me Wikipedia page, and I definitely refuse to rewatch the motion picture. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the character design, the cluttered-ass storyline, or Steve Carrell’s accent work. Nevertheless: Big hit.

The Minions are in Despicable Me because they’re Gru’s minions. They got an expanded role in 2013’s Despicable Me 2, and then they were granted their own spinoff franchise. Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe fell off, the Minions are the closest thing to a sure bet that Hollywood has left. You’d think Despicable Me would be just fine as a little self-contained fable about letting love into your heart or whatever, but no. I don’t remember what Despicable Me 2 is about, but they made the film, and it gave Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” to the world. The Minions were a good enough reason to resent the Despicable Me franchise, but “Happy” really ices that garbage-ass cake. Because now we have to talk about “Happy.”

I’m fine talking about Pharrell Williams. That’s not an issue. Once upon a time, Pharrell co-produced a lot of my favorite music. There was a moment, sometime around 1999 or 2000, when I would buy albums just because those albums had Neptunes beats on them. The Neptunes, the Virginia Beach team of Pharrell and Chad Hugo, made stripped-back sputter-clank future-funk that beautifully complemented the stuff that their fellow Virginia native Timbaland — Pharrell’s cousin, actually — was doing. Those NORE and Kelis and Ol’ Dirty Bastard tracks? Incredible. Pharrell’s voice was a key part of that early Neptunes run. He’d show up on Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” or Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” squeaking in his knowingly bad Curtis Mayfield falsetto, and his awkwardness hit just right. He was so cool.

As a vocalist, Pharrell traditionally worked best as flavor on someone else’s track. In that capacity, he’s already been in this column a bunch of times, so we’ve already been over his origin story. Pharrell was a featured guest on Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Ludacris’ “Money Maker,” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” He’s also been in here as a producer of Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” and that barely hints at his hitmaking run. When the Neptunes were first on fire, Pharrell flirted with the idea of becoming a solo artist. It didn’t work quite as well.

In 2003, the Neptunes released their Clones compilation, and it included Pharrell’s debut solo single: “Frontin’,” a frothy funk-pop flirtation with a verse from former Number Ones artist Jay-Z. That song was an honest-to-god hit, going all the way to #5. (It’s a 6.) Pharrell also showed some real promise on his 2006 Gangsta Grillz mixtape In My Mind: The Prequel. He was really rapping on some of that stuff. But In My Mind, the proper solo album that he released that year, was a straight-up flop. Its biggest single, the Gwen Stefani collab “Can I Have It Like That,” couldn’t get past #49. That didn’t seem to bother Lil Skateboard P too much. He just kept making hits for other people.

Even without much of a lead-artist career, Pharrell was all over the place. He produced huge songs, guested on them, and showed his face in the videos. He had the Billionaire Boys Club clothing line. He was the leader of the Neptunes’ quasi-rock project N.E.R.D., which was never hugely popular but which always got a certain degree of critical respect. I must’ve seen them live two or three times without ever meaning to, since they were on big shows in New York when I lived there. (N.E.R.D.’s only Hot 100 hit, the Rihanna collab “Lemon,” didn’t come out until 2017, and it peaked at #36.)

In 2010, the Despicable Me producers brought Pharrell in to make the soundtrack. Pharrell scored the movie with Heitor Pereira, a Brazilian composer who’s done a lot of kid-cinema music, and the two of them worked under the tutelage of Hans Zimmer, who got a producer credit. Pharrell and Zimmer have actually worked together a bunch of times over the years. I don’t remember much about that score, but I do vaguely recall the scene where Gru walks into a coffee shop while Pharrell raps about being Gru.

Despicable Me raked in more than $500 million at the global box office. In the US, it was right behind Inception on the year-end list, speaking of Hans Zimmer. Obviously, there needed to be a sequel. Nobody’s leaving that money on the table. Despicable Me 2 dropped in summer 2013, and it grossed even more money — $368 domestic, nearly a billion globally. It made less than Frozen but more than Man Of Steel, and the producers brought Pharrell and Heitor Pereira back for another soundtrack. I guess those guys just had the whole Despicable Me tone figured out.

“Happy” came into existence because Pharrell needed to soundtrack a moment where Gru is happy. That’s about how deep it gets. Gru is in love, so he dances all around and does the things that cartoon characters do when they’re happy. Pharrell later wrote a damn fuzzy-brained New York Times op-ed about how happiness is the one thing that bridges cultures or something, and he claimed that he wrote nine different songs for that scene. The movie’s producer rejected all of them. They weren’t sure about his tenth attempt, either, but then they listened for a while and decided that it was good enough. That tenth attempt was “Happy.”

Pharrell wrote, produced, and sang “Happy” all by himself. In an era of songwriting by committee, that’s a relatively rare thing — a #1 hit where one person does almost everything. But Pharrell didn’t intend to sing the song himself. He wrote it with the former Goodie Mob member Cee-Lo Green in mind. Later on, Pharrell told Howard Stern that Cee-Lo actually recorded a version of “Happy” and that Cee-Lo’s version was better than his own: “He sounded amazing on it. I mean, he burns my version!” Cee-Lo actually did have a Pharrell-produced song called “Scream” on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, but Pharrell claims that the “powers that be” didn’t want Cee-Lo to have “Happy.” There’s at least one AI version of Cee-Lo singing “Happy” out there now, but his actual recording has never leaked.

I might have to throw a flag on this narrative. Pharrell says that Cee-Lo’s team wanted him to focus on his own album. Given the timing, the album in question seems to be the Christmas LP Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment, which came out in October 2012 and sank without a trace. Despicable Me 2 was a big summer 2013 movie, so how would the Christmas album conflict with that? Or did he mean the horrendously titled Heart Blanche, which arrived in November 2015 and also sank without a trace? My guess is that the reason had more to do with Cee-Lo being charged with drugging an unsuspecting woman in October 2012. He eventually pleaded down to probation while tweeting some deeply wrong stuff about nature of consent. You don’t want that guy singing the big single from a kids’ movie. (Cee-Lo has made it to #2 twice. First, he was one half of the duo Gnarls Barkley, and they got there with 2006’s “Crazy.” It’s a 7. The second time was the 2010 solo single “Fuck You.” That’s a 6.)

In any case, Pharrell did “Happy” on his own. If you’ve heard enough Neptunes beats, then you know exactly what he’s going for with the track. It’s his sleek, modernized take on classic Motown — upbeat digitized bubblesoul with lyrics that extol love-the-world sentiment. “Happy” was specifically intended to soundtrack one on-the-nose moment of a cartoon character being happy, and the world was only supposed to hear about a minute of the track, but it also aligns with the vague, corporate-friendly version of optimism that Pharrell likes to put out into the world. If you’ve ever read or listened to a Pharrell interview, then you’ve probably been bored by that fuzzily utopian sensibility, but maybe it’s easier to get that across in a pop song than to convey those feelings in conversational speech.

“Happy” moves at a brisk clip, the drums coming in at a syncopated gallop while the bass and guitars do funky-ish things. Pharrell’s falsetto is a lot creamier and less strained than it was in the early Neptunes days, but I don’t think it has the same charm. It sounds professionalized, and it doesn’t have that same spiky personality that Pharrell always brought to his tracks. Pharrell wants you to clap along if you feel like a room without a roof, and handclaps flood their way onto the track when he hits that chorus. “Happy” is nothing if not literal.

Since “Happy” is so low on subtext, I have to ask: A room without a roof? What good is that? Is Pharrell talking about a porch? Or is happiness really represented by the image of a four-walled room with no ceiling? I get what he’s going for there. You’re inside, but you can still reach up to the sky and feel the sunshine on your face. But also: It’s going to rain eventually, and all your shit is going to be ruined. After one month, that room is going to smell terrible. Maybe that’s why Pharrell, for all his side projects, has never really branched out into architecture.

That’s right. Jokes. We all made them. What else are you supposed to do? Here’s this giant fucking smash, the single biggest hit of 2014, and it’s all about being happy, with the lyrics delivering that message in the most linear way possible. It’s like “If You’re Happy And You Know It,” except somehow even more obvious, since the “and you know it” part at least implies some level of inward gaze and self-awareness. “Happy” wants you to clap along if you’re happy, and it doesn’t even care whether you know it. Maybe that’s a way of honoring an instinctive urge, or maybe it’s just a stupid idea, delivered stupidly.

When “Happy” was still conquering the zeitgeist, I wrote that it’s “a sharp, finely honed, undeniable pop song.” I wish I could still access the part of my brain that felt that way. It’s gone. I can no longer hear “Happy” as anything other than an active irritant. The song has hooks and passion and a nice little tempo, and I can’t give it credit for any of those things. All I can do is roll my eyes into the back of my fucking skull whenever I hear it. There are reasons for that. One is a simple matter of timing. Exactly 10 years ago, “Happy” was the #1 song in America. That decade mark is tough. It’s old enough that everything that came out back then is now embarrassing, and it’s recent enough that there’s been no attempt to revive or rediscover any of it. Maybe one day, in another decade or so, I’ll be able to locate some lingering nostalgic affection for “Happy.” Today is not that day.

There’s another thing standing in the way of me appreciating “Happy” in any way: I have children. When “Happy” reached #1, my kids were four and one, respectively. That means that I had to hear “Happy” so many times. It’s not even that my kids ever liked “Happy.” If they did, I’d have an easier time getting into the song. When you see your kids’ faces light up at hearing a song, it usually kills any dislike that you might personally have. The problem is that people kept playing “Happy” in situations where children were present. That meant birthday parties, school picnics, and other family-friendly functions turned into opportunities for Pharrell to tell me that he’s happy. At a certain point, I was like: Shut the fuck up, Pharrell.

“Happy” is a repetitive song, one that keeps running its chorus back and doesn’t have a proper bridge. Ordinarily, that might not be a problem. When I have to hear the song that many times, in that many potentially-stressful child-related social situations, it loses whatever charm it might’ve had. As a critic, that leaves me in a position where I can admire the spirit and craft that went into “Happy” while also resenting the track’s very existence.

It took a long time for “Happy” to reach the level of cultural saturation where the song could annoy the fuck out of me. Despicable Me 2 happened to come out when Pharrell was at his greatest level of cultural visibility. The summer of 2013 was the summer of “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which would’ve almost certainly topped the Hot 100 if it didn’t get stuck at #2 behind the “Blurred Lines” juggernaut. (It’s an 8.) So Pharrell didn’t just soundtrack one of that summer’s movies; he also played a key role on two of that summer’s biggest hits.

Because “Blurred Lines” was so big, Universal Pictures didn’t push “Happy” as a single when Despicable Me 2 was in theaters. Instead, the “Happy” single came out in November, five months after the film opened and a few weeks before it arrived on DVD. I don’t know what the thinking there was. Maybe they wanted to mount a campaign for an Oscar, or maybe it was just a matter of clearing the runway so that Pharrell could make another hit. Whatever the case, Pharrell promoted the single with an ambitious marketing idea: a 24-hour music video. (Now that I think of it, the damn 24-hour video might’ve taken months to assemble, so maybe that’s why the single came out so late.)

A French duo with the frankly dishonest name We Are From LA directed the “Happy” video, and they filmed 360 four-minute segments of people dancing to the track. Some of those people were celebrities: Magic Johnson, Jamie Foxx, Jimmy Kimmel, Steve Carrell, Issa Rae, Kelly Osbourne, the young Pharrell acolytes in the ascendant Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Most of the people were just regular people — or, more accurately, regular people who were really good at dancing. The vast majority of them are shown boogieing down sidewalks, much like Gru in that one Despicable Me 2 scene. You could go to a dedicated website and watch all 24 hours, or you could click around within the site and try to spot some famous folks. You could also watch the regular “Happy” video, an edited-together highlight reel of those scenes with a whole lot of Pharrell in there.

I must say: Good marketing! The team behind “Happy” manufactured their own “Harlem Shake,” building themselves the kind of virality that was hard to generate in that era of the internet. With 360 clips to choose from, the editors of the proper “Happy” video were able to put build a sense of energy without relying on the single-setting drabness that affects so many of this century’s music videos. (I feel so bad for the people who had to hear the song so many times while stitching the clip together.) Pharrell is also a hugely charismatic figure and a great dancer, and he holds the screen whenever he’s on it. The “Happy” campaign led to lots of people making their own “Happy” videos. Following the “Harlem Shake” playbook, that phenomenon naturally led to kids in Iran getting arrested for dancing to “Happy,” which then led to more news stories, which fueled the phenomenon.

Eventually, the “Happy” videos became so ubiquitous that Oprah Winfrey showed Pharrell a bunch of them and got him to cry at the beauty of all of it. Before that, though, “Happy” earned Pharrell an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. At the ceremony, Pharrell performed “Happy” while wearing a giant, meme-friendly hat. While singing, he went into the front row and got movie stars — Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams — to briefly dance with him. But “Happy” didn’t win. Instead, Pharrell lost that award to another cultural-phenomenon song from another kids’ animated movie: “Let It Go” from Frozen, one of the few films that outgrossed Despicable Me 2 that year. (Idina Menzel’s version of “Let It Go” peaked at #5. It’s a 9, and it totally deserved to win.)

Pharrell was bummed about his loss, and he coped by making puns in a GQ interview with my old friend Zach Baron: “When they read the results, my face was… frozen. But then I thought about it, and I just decided just to… let it go.” He wouldn’t answer Zach’s question about his feelings on “Let It Go.” Instead, he asked a rhetorical question: “Is it going to be here for 10 years — that song from Frozen?” It’s been 10 years, so we can now say, very definitively, that the song from Frozen is still here. Shut the fuck up, Pharrell.

When “Happy” started to take off, Pharrell didn’t have a record deal as a solo artist. In December 2013, he signed to Columbia, probably for a whole lot of money. “Happy” finally rose to #1 in March, just a few days after the Oscar performance, and then it held onto the top spot for months. In fact, “Happy” was the longest-reigning #1 hit since “Blurred Lines,” which means Pharrell was doing awfully well for himself. Pharrell had been a pop-chart presence since the days of “Rump Shaker,” more than two decades earlier. He’s made tons of hits for other people, and he finally had one for himself. This version of Pharrell was nothing like the Neptunes guy that I remembered, though that version still lurked somewhere in him. A couple of days before “Happy” hit #1, Pharrell joined his old friend Pusha T to rap a nasty verse on Future’s great single “Move That Dope.” But the “Move That Dope” Pharrell wasn’t the Pharrell that was presented to most of the world. (“Move That Dope” peaked at #46. Future will eventually appear in this column.)

Right around the time that “Happy” hit #1, Pharrell also released Girl — or, as he stylized it, G I R L — only the second solo album of his long career. “Happy” was on the album, and the whole record was very much in that lane. It’s a compact pop-soul album with a mistily utopian feminist-adjacent central concept and contributions from tons of pop stars: Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, Daft Punk. Hans Zimmer arranged the strings. Girl was presented as a big album, but it barely limped to gold, and only one of its post-“Happy” singles made the Hot 100. (“Come Get It Bae,” a funky internet-speak track with Miley Cyrus, peaked at #23.) I reviewed Girl positively and then totally stopped thinking about the album. After publishing that piece, I don’t think I ever revisited the record until working on this column.

Pharrell hasn’t made another big solo hit since “Happy,” and I don’t think he’s really tried. “Happy” went diamond in 2020. Two years later, someone tweeted, “No song annoyed me like Happy by Pharrell did.” Pharrell quote-tweeted it, writing, “Same.” In the years that followed, Pharrell did a bunch of other things. He served a coach on The Voice. He launched a Virginia Beach music festival that’s had a somewhat cursed and tumultuous history. Last year, he became men’s creative director for Louis Vuitton, which is apparently a big deal in fashion circles. (I wouldn’t know.) Right now, Pharrell is playing a small bit part in the Drake/Kendrick Lamar feud. He’s also somehow got multiple biopics in development, including a Michel Gondry musical and an animated Lego thing.

Fortunately, none of the later Despicable Me and Minions films have launched any other inescapable hit singles, though there’s another one coming out this summer, so maybe we’re not out of the woods on that one. Pharrell still makes music sometimes, and he reached #26 with the 2022 single “Cash In, Cash Out,” where he’s listed as lead artist even though his vocals don’t appear. Instead, Pharrell leaves that to his guests — 21 Savage and onetime “Happy” video cameo guy Tyler, The Creator — and both of them rap ferociously. (Tyler’s highest-charting single, 2019’s “Earfquake,” peaked at #13. Savage will eventually appear in this column.) Last month, Pharrell quietly released a surprise album called Black Yacht Rock, and you can only get it at this website. It’s not bad!

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Pharrell is 51 years old. He’s wildly famous and widely respected, but he’s not exactly a pop star, and he seems to be fine with that. He gets on my nerves sometimes, but the guy has made a ton of music that I love, and I wish him the best. I hope he really is happy. The Minions, though? I don’t have any goodwill toward those motherfuckers. Get them out of here.

GRADE: 3/10

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BONUS BEATS: You already know exactly what’s about to happen here. The lead single from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s most recent album, 2014’s Mandatory Fun, is a very good “Happy” parody called “Tacky.” For the video, Yankovic and some of his comedy buddies — Jack Black, Aisha Tyler, Kristen Schaal — lip-sync the track while dressed like clowns. It’s pretty great. Here it is:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Clap along if you feel like buying the book here.

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