The Ones of the ’10s: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”

In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s.

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Pharrell Williams- “Happy”

HIT #1: March 8, 2014

STAYED AT #1: 10 weeks

In the context of Despicable Me 2, “Happy” functions as a sort of break in the movie. Gru has just come off of a blind date he didn’t want to go out on only being stopped thanks to his agent co-worker Lucy who he starts realizing his feelings for. After dropping his date off, the movie shows a montage of Gru being in a very good mood as he wakes up for the day. After he leaves the home, Gru is dancing, interacting with people on the street, stops traffic to help some ducks cross, participates in a yoga class, and at the end is dancing at the mall just before the story picks up again. Through all of this, a vaguely soulful and cheerful song plays as Pharrell Williams sings about the upbeat mood Gru is in.

Despicable Me 2 is one of those movies I remember seeing in theaters when it originally came out though couldn’t tell you how it goes. In 2010, the first Despicable Me was a surprise summer box office hit so a sequel on a cuddly supervillain who adopts three girls while performing missions with his little yellow minions was inevitable. Despicable Me 2 was released in July 2013 in time for the July 4th holiday and I remember seeing it with my sister at one of our local theaters. I don’t remember much of what I thought about the movie aside from being a good night out. Upon rewatching it, I did remember some scenes like Gru and Lucy getting married at the end and the rest of the film certainly brought back some memories but it’s very much a movie you can watch a bunch of times and still wind up forgetting.

At the time in 2013, Despicable Me 2 was another huge summer hit for the franchise getting good reviews and doing better than the first movie grossing almost $1 billion worldwide making it Universal Pictures’ best-performing film. In North America, it grossed $368 million finishing as the 4th-biggest movie of 2013. Despicable Me 2 made less than Iron Man 3 and Frozen but made more than Man of Steel and Gravity. The song soundtracking Gru in a positive mood however would take on a life of its own eventually getting nominated for an Oscar and becoming a major chart smash in the winter and spring of 2014 when the film was already out of theaters making a bigger mark on the public than the movie it came from.

For Pharrell Williams, “Happy” is a song that took him forever to write. Pharrell had been brought on by Illumination to write and compose music for the movie just as he had done for the first Despicable Me. One of his assignments for the movie was to write a song that would express Gru’s new happy mood. That proved to be a hard thing to write and please the people on the film as nine of his songs that he had written were rejected. To hear Pharrell tell it, he was in a big writer’s block after all these rejections until he started thinking back to the main assignment, “They’re asking for something where Gru is in a good mood, and that’s when I realized that everything I needed was right there. I began to ask myself, ‘What does feeling like a good mood feel like?’ That’s where ‘Happy’ came from, and that’s how that happened.”

Given this backstory, it’s weird to think that “Happy” took so many tries to get right. It sounds like one of the simplest songs you’ll ever hear, the kind that sounds like it’s always existed. The main lyrical message of “Happy” is this: Pharrell is happy and nothing, not even bad news, can stop him while wanting you to join him in that feeling. While the song follows a typical pop song structure, it builds itself around that chorus repeating it for what feels like forever. There’s also the constant repetition of “happy” from the choir on the chorus along with the bridge in a full-on gospel chant that makes it feel more like the hook than Pharrell singing about if you feel like a room without a roof. 

Musically, “Happy” is one of those songs where you can’t quite pin down its genre. Compared to the spaced-out productions of Pharrell’s past, the production on “Happy” is largely small and pedestrian sounding. It’s led mainly by a funky drum groove with minimal bass and keyboard that gives the song its energy. Many put it as a soul song and the great critic Chris Molanphy has even described “Happy” as secular gospel. You can definitely hear both of those styles on “Happy” but it still doesn’t feel accurate of a description to me. Largely due to its elemental style, it sounds to me like soul and gospel music for people who aren’t familiar with both genres. It’s still a fun and solid beat but it never quite lands for me.

For his singing, Pharrell cited ‘70s soul great Curtis Mayfield as his inspiration. (Curtis Mayfield’s highest-charting single, 1972’s “Freddie’s Dead,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) Listening to the both of them, Pharrell is obviously no Curtis Mayfield but you can hear what he was going for with the thin and airy falsetto. Yes, his performance, like the song, is dorky and uncool even but his lighthearted delivery works for what the song is going for. Initially, Pharrell was gonna give “Happy” to CeeLo Green but Green’s label decided against it to focus on his upcoming Christmas album. (CeeLo Green’s highest-charting single, 2010’s “Fuck You,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.) That was probably for the better. Green would have done “Happy” just fine but Pharrell’s voice just fits the song more to me.

Ultimately, Pharrell and the rest of the vocals are my biggest problem about “Happy.” The song is so repetitive and delivered in such a chipper fashion that it can get grating when it gets overplayed as what happened in 2014. If you’re not in a happy mood then “Happy” can be downright oppressive when it’s on. So “Happy:” a fun and well-performed song that can drive you crazy at the wrong moment.

When Despicable Me 2 got released, “Happy” wasn’t given much attention or thought. That largely had to do with the fact that Pharrell was already busy dominating the charts in the summer of 2013 with a guest appearance on Robin Thicke’s #1 “Blurred Lines,” a song Pharrell produced, and right behind at #2 on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” (“Get Lucky” is a 10.) Not wanting to crowd the market, Universal decided against promoting “Happy.” It wouldn’t be until November when the song got its single release after Pharrell posted his ambitious project of a 24-hour music video. The video was filmed by the duo We Are from LA shot on Steadicam over 11 days in Los Angeles and posted to a website dedicated to the video for people to check out though you can’t find it today as the site is inactive. (Honestly, even if you’re a fan, I don’t see why anyone would want to watch a 24-hour music video.)

For YouTube, a friendlier four-minute version of the video was posted as the official video for “Happy” showing Pharrell singing the song in various settings and in many shots donning that Vivian Westwood hat that would come to define him and take on a life of its own. Alongside Pharrell, we see a plethora of regular people and celebrities dancing and lip-syncing to the song throughout LA. Some of the celebrities in the video include Jimmy Kimmel, Magic Johnson, Kelly Osbourne, Steve Carrell, and probably a bunch more I’m not remembering. There are also Minion mascots which along with Steve Carrell is presumably a reminder to people that this song came from Despicable Me 2. For what it’s worth, it’s a fun video that to me shows how wide the song’s appeal is. It’s a song that everyone from little kids to senior citizens to people in between could get into.

At the time, “Happy” definitely felt like a massive phenomenon. I was in high school and I remember hearing it a lot during the winter and spring whether it was at school or on the radio or public events. The impact of “Happy” was felt in other ways. The United Nations partnered with Pharrell in 2014 and 2015 for their International Day of Happiness. There were even fans in Iran arrested for creating a tribute video to the song that caused Pharrell to speak out in support of those fans using his song. “Happy” became not just a big pop song but a world anthem, not the kind of trajectory you see often.

The weird thing about all of it was that I don’t think many realized it came from a hit animated movie over the summer. To me, I didn’t remember where “Happy” played in Despicable Me 2 and wondered why it took until well after the movie for the song to get big. Due to that history, “Happy” is a soundtrack hit that doesn’t feel as attached to its movie in the way many soundtrack hits are. 

“Happy” was in the truest sense of the term a massive crossover hit going to #1 on both the Adult Contemporary and R&B charts. On the Hot 100, it was the longest-running #1 of 2014 and dominated so much that Billboard eventually named it the biggest hit of the year. At the 2014 Oscars, “Happy” was nominated for Best Original Song and Pharrell performed the song at the ceremony starting out solo before being joined onstage by a huge number of dancers and going down to the celebrities in the front row. It’s a very energetic performance but it wasn’t enough for Pharrell to win the prize losing instead to another smash pop animated film hit “Let It Go” from Frozen. (“Let It Go” happened to peak at #5 during “Happy’s” run at #1. I’m not gonna grade it just yet as you’ll find out soon.) Talking to GQ, Pharrell had a funny response to the loss, “When they read the results, my face was…frozen. But then I thought about it, and I just decided just to… let it go.”

Pharrell Williams had hit #1 three times before as a featured artist with the aforementioned “Blurred Lines” along with Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and Ludacris’ “Money Maker.” At age 40, Pharrell finally got a #1 on his own though his moment of pop chart dominance wouldn’t extend past “Happy.” The success of “Happy” happened to coincide with Pharrell switching labels from Interscope to Columbia releasing his first album on the label GIRL while the song was #1 and on that strength, it debuted and peaked at #2 eventually going gold but didn’t launch other hits with the only other hit on it being the Miley Cyrus collab “Come Get It Bae” and that only peaked at #23.

Aside from a 2018 album with his Neptunes side project N.E.R.D., Pharrell hasn’t put out an album of his own since. Singles-wise, he’s mainly charted with features with his highest-post “Happy” hit being the funky 2017 Calvin Harris collab “Feels” with Katy Perry and Big Sean which peaked at #20. But it’s not like Pharrell has been hurting from not having another “Happy” style hit. He’s still around in other areas. He’s been a judge on The Voice, he’s done a lot of business ventures, and still writes and produces for others and he’ll have a songwriting credit on a song that’ll eventually appear in this column.

When looking at Pharrell Williams, pop chart success ultimately represents a small part of his greater impact. “Happy” is certainly the biggest thing in Pharrell’s career but it’s not like he’ll be known just as a producer guy that had one big hit in 2014. But having “Happy” certainly doesn’t hurt cause as long as happiness still exists, it’ll be right there for us to use to express those feelings.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s YouTuber Bart Baker’s 2014 parody video for “Happy” which parodies pretty much everything about the song and Pharrell while featuring an appearance from Joan Rivers just months from her death:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the similarly celebrity-filled video for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Happy” parody “Tacky” which turns “Happy” into a self-explanatory song making fun of people’s tacky lifestyles:

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

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Pharrell singing a bit of “Happy” on a 2015 Simpsons episode before he is sent off on a horse:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the not good cover of “Happy” that one-time #1 artist Johnny Mathis released in 2017:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Will Ferrell and Racheal McAdams singing a bit of “Happy” in the enjoyable 2020 film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga:

THE 10S OF THE ‘10S: Bastille’s uplifting electro-rock “Pompeii” peaked at #5 behind “Happy.” It’s an 8.

Lorde’s thumping hometown tribute “Team” peaked at #6 behind “Happy.” It’s another 8.

Aloe Blacc’s elegant and triumphant Elton John interpolating “The Man” peaked at #8 behind “Happy.” You can tell everybody it’s an 8.

9 thoughts on “The Ones of the ’10s: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”

  1. I’ve never really felt that this was anything more than ‘OK’,,, maybe a 6? ‘Happy’ marks one of the very last huge-selling singles in the UK, just before streaming took over. If you look at the ‘best-selling singles’ table, which is now forever frozen in time as nothing will ever ‘sell’ enough to break into it, ‘Happy’ sits at #8, between ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’. It’s the only 21st century release in the Top 15.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The way I see it is that it’s a good well made song that gets weighed down by the massive overplay and repetitiveness. If anything, “Happy” being the biggest song of 2014 feels representative to how weirdly throwback heavy 2014 was in the hits where it felt like anything could be a hit.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I heard it werk of release, i liked it, i bought it, i charted it. Its instantly catchy and feelgood. And then months later it became a monster beloved of many in any age group. It was never a chart topper for me, but i still like it as long as i dont hear it too much. Hes fone better stuff, but not as universally popular. Few have!

    Liked by 1 person

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