A U.S. District Court judge recently ruled that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. doesn’t own the song Happy Birthday after all. They’ve been earning $2 million a year in royalties for it, mostly for film and TV use. Remember the Friends episode where the waiters gathered around the table to sing Happy Birthday to Joey even though it was Phoebe’s birthday? That cost the show five grand, easy.
The gravy train is over for Warner/Chappell. The suffering continues for the rest of us. “Happy Birthday” is just about the worst song in the world.
It isn’t just the song itself. There’s also the painful, untextured ritual of it, year after year, party after party, unvaried but for the occasional loveless insertion of cha-cha-cha. It is a bit of mummery that brings joy to exactly no one, ever. It’s a thing we do because it is done. And every time we sing it, 15 seconds drop through the drain at our feet, never to be recovered.
So the bland ritual is bad, but so is the actual song. Start with the words. Imagine what we could say to each other every year! We could have a song that reminds us what a birthday really is:
Once again the earth comes ’round
To where you came to be
And now we celebrate before
You’re snuffed by entropy.
Okay, a work in progress. But “Happy Birthday to you” four times? That’s just phoning it in.
Speaking of which, the first notes of the melody include one of the most boring possible melodic structures:
The note on “Birth” is called a neighbor tone. Start on a note that’s in the chord, go up (or down) one step, then back to the first note again. That’s a neighbor. Now add the fact that this particular one goes up to the sixth note of the major scale, the absolutely least interesting pitch in the scale, and you have the musical equivalent of lifting your head from the pillow for a moment before laying it down again.
After an admittedly cool accented passing tone on the first syllable of the birthday kid’s name — you get a tritone with the bass if harmony is playing, very nice — time begins to stretch:
Happy Birthday Dear Miiiiiiikeeeeeeeey…
We draw the name out in a rallentando, then hang a big caesura (a hold) over the last syllable. Why? We’ve been singing for all of eight seconds, I don’t need to rest. Yes, drawing out their name makes the kid feel special…but tick tick, you know? I say keep the tempo steady, save three seconds each time, and hike Denali with the time you accrue over the years.
Okay, I’ve dissed the Star-Spangled Banner and Happy Birthday. Next time I’ll go after Amazing Grace.
Photo by Omer Wazir | CC 2.0