The New "Happy," A Protest Anthem

How can one Oscar-nominated pop tune make such a difference?

Posted Apr 23, 2014

Although I initially liked the song, my feelings about Pharrell William's Oscar-nominated hit "Happy" had been moving towards how I feel about the 1990s version of "Killing Me Softly with His Song."

So over-played that I immediately felt drawn to change the radio station once I heard the opening notes.

But I recently read an article that is prompting me to re-think this peppy pop tune. It seems that "Happy" is being transformed into a protest song, an anthem for people who live in chaos, challenging times, and political turmoil. It's turning into a symbol of their spirit and their resilience under difficult circumstances.

This movement is being documented through music videos created by people from areas such as Tunis, Moscow, and the Ukraine in response to the hardships they are facing. Some videos show people dancing in the street, all smiles and joy, a showcase of spirit in spite of their troubles. Others pack a more powerful punch. For example, the Ukranian video starts with dancing, then transitions into juxtaposing footage of bombings and violence in the streets with the energetic boppiness of "Happy." (Read Shan Wang's contribution at PolicyMic for a wonderful overview and analysis of this trend.)

"Happy" seems an unlikely choice for a protest song. When you look back at more traditional protest anthems, you hear music and words that sounds strong, heavy, angry or sad. Think "We Shall Overcome" from the Civil Rights movement and Green Day's "American Idiot" as an anti-Iraq War song. These are just two of the many, many examples of how music has historically been used as an organizing, socially acceptable way to express objection and disagreement with authority and oppression.

If you broaden the definition of "protest song" you will find moments documented in history of when music brought together dissenting factions. These moments can perhaps be described as poignant, reflective, or sad. This happened on Christmas Eve in 1914, when the sounds of holiday music replaced that of gunfire between the British and German troops. It happened again in the 1990s in Sarajevo, when cellist Vedran Smailović performed regularly and openly in the streets during the long  Bosnian War siege (an event documented in Steven Galloway's 2009 book The Cellist of Sarajevo). And it happened more recently when German pianist Davide Martello played in the midst of protest efforts in Istanbul.

However, "Happy" seems to break these molds. There's nothing serious, sad, angry, heavy, or poignant about the song. Instead, it seems to have evolved beyond it's catchy melody and rhythmic energy, serving instead as a symbol of the human spirit, cultural pride, and the resilience of a people.

Why is this? What is it about this particular song that has warranted its new role? It is not really possible to pinpoint what exactly instigated this evolution. It reminds me a bit of Malcolm Gladwell's concept of the tipping point—it may take some time to uncover what "little thing" happened that turned "Happy" into a global protest anthem.Perhaps it is partially due to how the upbeat rhythms, catchy melody, and bright timbres create an automatic desire to dance around carefree. This does seem to inform how the trend started, with footage of people dancing in the streets.

Perhaps there is something to the lyrics that facilitated this transition. There's a message of resilience reflected in the words:

Here come bad news talking this and that

Yeah, give me all you got, don't hold it back

Yeah, well I should probably warn you I'll be just fine

No offense to you, don't waste your time

Here's why

Because I'm happy . . .

Then again, perhaps this trend is less about the song itself and more about our innate desire to use creativity as a form of expression. Creativity through dancing, creativity through singing, and creativity through movie-making. This creativity is what allows us to express and showcase our spirit, our culture, and our resilience as a people.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

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