I need to come out of the closet. This is something I've wanted to say for a long time. I don't want you to feel like I've purposefully tried to hide who I am from you all. I've just been grappling with a lot of emotions privately, attempting to sort out how and why I feel like I'm simply not like everyone else. Dearest friends, the truth of the matter is this: I don't like "Happy." There, I said it. I hope you can still accept me.
And I wish that was all but sadly, it's even deeper than just distaste for one incredibly overrated song. I'm actually not on board with the entire Pharrell reboot.
Now before you cry "blasphemy", at least allow me some last words. Back when I was going through puberty, a young buck just planting the seeds of the person I might eventually become, Pharrell was nothing short of a godlike figure in my life. In fact, I'd venture to say that he's a primary reason why I'm in the music business.
"Superthug?" "Caught Out There?" "Grindin," "Drop It Like It's Hot," "Like I Love You?" "Hollaback Girl" and "Shake Ya Ass" and "Truth or Dare," oh my! I even liked "Can I Have It Like That." That's some serious superfan credentials right there.
These songs shaped my -- indeed my entire generation's -- coming-of-age. The Neptunes' sound was special for many reasons: It was deemed "space-aged" and was plainly forward-thinking, bleeping and blooping its way to complete indelibility. But it also drew shrewdly on tried-and-true tropes of hip-hop, pop and funk -- the drum and bass parts of "Hella Good" were unabashedly lifted wholesale from "Billie Jean," and "Danger (Been So Long)" rides the basic DNA chain of many James Brown classics.
However, Pharrell's back-catalogue is a deft example of an artist playing with well-worn pop music trademarks, yet never sounding reductive or derivative. His work was defined by profound simplicity, a stripping back and modernizing of his more ornate influences. The beats felt utterly complete but never overworked, and the hooks soared on their joyously straightforward irreverence and accessibility ("It's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes." Entirely catchy chorus, totally logical notion.)
Pharrell 1.0, both as beatmaker and lyricist, did a masterful job of balancing light and dark elements. The hook of Clipse's "When the Last Time" is a great example of lyrical content that harbors disturbing misogyny yet is still playful enough to sing along with at a bar mitzvah while your grandmother electric-slides to your left. Same goes for "Lapdance," "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It To Me)," "I'm a Slave 4 U," and countless other Neptunes hits.
These songs are pop, no doubt, but there was an everpresent edge lurking beneath the glistening surface, darker shades to balance the fructose. They were also indisputably original.
The reason Pharrell 2.0 is a disappointment is not because he is making "bad" music. He is certainly not. "Get Lucky" is about as solid a disco facsimile as one could imagine, and as an homage it works flawlessly. Same can be said for Kylie Minogue's "I Was Gonna Cancel", Ed Sheeran's "Sing" (Unique in that it is a tribute to Pharrell by Pharrell), "Marilyn Monroe," "Hunter," and a number of cuts on Pharrell's own recent solo disc G.I.R.L.
However, the unfortunate operative word in the above paragraph is "homage." In fact, pop music as a whole is currently deep in The Era of Homage: This is a trend that extends way beyond Pharrell. Last year, I talked at length about Justin Timberlake's recent music veering dangerously towards vanilla karaoke. The same can be said for countless recent hits: Bruno Mars' "Treasure," Ariana Grande's "The Way" and almost every song on Random Access Memories. They all fall listlessly into this category.
The problem here is not necessarily that these songs are weak. The overall issue is that these songs, and by extension their creators, appear to have no interest in taking inspiration from earlier works and doing something unprecedented with that stimulus. "Get Lucky" is not a fresh take on the sounds of the mid-70s. It is literally a mid-70s song, expertly cloned with the addition of modern instrumentation.
What these songs fail to do is exactly what the Neptunes, at their height, excelled at: Giving pop's hallmarks a new and exciting shade of paint. Ironically, perhaps the two most ubiquitous, and arguably irritating, perpetrators of our current homage epidemic are both covered in Pharrell's fingerprints: the insipid, Marvin Gaye bastardization "Blurred Lines" and, as I mentioned at the top of this piece, "Happy."
At this point, my beef with "Happy" should be explicit. Of course, "Happy" is a "good" song by basic pop metrics: The hook is infectious and immediate and the production is a clean, crisp and masterful rendition of traditional gospel music (you can picture "Happy" being sung with verve by a Sunday church service choir with very little lyrical alteration). Let's table that part of the discussion.
More pressing, "Happy" is also edgeless, pandering, wholly faceless and unoriginal, adding almost no novel elements to the genre it shamelessly apes. Almost any artist in any era of popular music over the past century could sing this song with success. Hell, Pharrell himself admitted last week that the song was originally recorded by Cee-Lo, another recent practitioner in the art of homage. Any of these descriptors were once unthinkable when discussing a Pharrell production.
The fact that this is the song on which Pharrell is riding to his highest current career success, while understandable, is also the source of a constant bad taste in my mouth whenever I hear it blasting from car windows or when I spin it in the club. Is this the same man who gave us such mind-bending bangers as "Southern Hospitality" and "Brain"? The mind boggles.
And finally, "Happy" is a song that is literally about being happy in the broadest, most non-descriptive terms (Seriously, does anyone actually know how a room without a roof feels? Is that a "happy" feeling? I'm personally happy when my rooms have roofs. I live in New York.)
Happiness is an emotion that, by my count, only exists when tied to other emotions, but "Happy" exists on only one, decidedly surface plain. Do humans experience happiness without experiencing sadness, anger, fear and everything else? Without bringing any hues besides "Happy!" (sample lyric: "My level's too high to bring me down / can't nothing bring me down." Bleh.), "Happy" ultimately lays completely flat emotionally, sonically and lyrically. It merely passes through the listener without leaving any sort of lingering mark. It's a trifle.
The same can be said for almost every song Pharrell has touched in the last 12 months. What happened to the guilt and tenderness of N.E.R.D's "Provider," the unbridled resentment of Kelis' "Caught Out There" or the intricacies of Jay-Z's heroin ode "I Know?" I mean, come on guys, no one is really that happy!
So that's it. I just had to get that off my chest and free myself from all the guilt and shame I've been walking around with throughout this epoch of Pharrell 2.0. Thank you for accepting me for who I am, even if it's not totally normal, or maybe not even that happy. Now please don't try and *beat* bring me down.
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