Pharrell Williams on the cover of the July 2014 collector's edition issue of Elle UK.
“May all beings be happy,” is a Buddhist incantation that has always moved me. Unfortunately, with his recent comments, recording artist Pharrell Williams seems to be saying, “I, as a wealthy male celebrity, am happy. The rest of you are on your own.”
Earlier this year, Pharrell’s song “Happy” had become my personal anthem. After decades of struggling, my life has been going well. I got an agent for my novel, my family is thriving, and my house is clean—well mostly. No wonder I walk around singing and want to clap along.
When I first heard “Happy,” I was delighted that a young black man had released a song that defied the typical tropes of his demographic—sex, violence, “ghetto” life, and competitive masculinity. I showed the video to my young daughter, because it was so innocent and positive, featuring people of all ages, races, genders, and sizes dancing gleefully.
But beyond images of people dancing, what exactly is happiness, and how do people attain it? Some believe that access to happiness is rooted in material reality and privilege. As such, it is more easily attained by some because the playing field isn’t level. The good life is harder for some people to access because they’re part of a marginalized community, or have to deal with trauma that leaves them isolated. An opposing philosophy of happiness stresses the power of positive thinking, that “your attitude affects your altitude.” In my experience, life is a complex interaction of both philosophies, but Pharrell’s song was a welcome break from complexity of the world—it’s three minutes where I can simply embrace the positive.
Unfortunately, however, there can be a shadow side of positive thinking. Some proponents exhibit an inability to have compassion for anyone who is struggling or experiencing mistreatment, an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of peoples’ lives that are difficult or painful. For some, there is an underlying blame dynamic: I’m happy and if you’re not, it’s your fault.
Recently, Pharrell has been making many people unhappy with some of his comments and choices about race and gender.
He first came under fire for comments he made back in April. Priya Elan in The Guardian says it well:
“The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues,” said Pharrell, one of the world’s most successful musicians, to Oprah, billionaire queen of the world. “The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.”
It’s a comment that not only suggests he has a library full of Deepak Chopra books under that hat, but that also highlights how daft it is when a millionaire attempts to speak for an entire race.
In response, writer and blogger Feminista Jones [said] that while it’s admirable to believe that black people can now transcend race, Pharrell’s comments are ultimately a “slap in the face” to people who do not fit in with his narrow ideas.
Last month, Pharrell drew additional fire from feminists when he defended “Blurred Lines,” the controversial song he produced and co-wrote with Robin Thicke last year. PolicyMic columnist Lauren Davidson says, “In a song with a video in which fully-clothed men lust after naked ladies and tell women that they don't really know what they want, it seems ‘Blurred Lines’ really does suggest that no sometimes means yes,” Davidson, cites “this song's tacit contribution to rape culture.”
I had boycotted “Blurred Lines” on general feminist principle. I always associated the song with Robin Thicke, and did not realize until recently that Pharrell was involved. Now I regret showing my daughter the “Happy” video—I don't want her to extend the positive associations with this one G-rated song to the rest of his music.
Not only have the words from “Blurred Lines” come under fire, but his music has, as well. The family of Marvin Gaye sued over, claiming it was derivative of Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” The parties settled out of court. To be honest, when I heard the opening bars of Blurred Lines on the radio, I thought it was the Marvin Gaye song. Then I realized what it was and turned it off.
This week, Pharrell continued his losing streak when Elle Magazine UK released their latest issue with him on the cover in controversial headgear. When people called out the star online, he issued an apology.
In sum, the artist has blamed less privileged African Americans for their challenges, defended his anthem insisting that a woman’s “no” means “yes,” appropriated an important part of Native American culture to serve his own media agenda, and ripped off an R&B legend. Unfortunately, his vision is starting to look less like happiness and more like narcissism.
Yet there’s something so compelling about “Happy.” Perhaps, because it was developed as part of the soundtrack to the children’s movie Despicable Me 2, Pharrell wasn’t able to use any of the cliché tropes of young black masculinity. When forced to create in a context without them, his creativity blossomed. Maybe this reflects a deeper truth about many young men, that they were deeply tapped into humanity before conditioning forced them to take on the artifice of coolness, aggression, materialism, and misogyny. Not only does “Happy” speak to a childlike wonder in the world, but also the music is absolutely infectious.
While Pharrell has captured the wonder of the child in the song “Happy,” he has been less successful in articulating a grown up vision for happiness that is not at someone’s expense. I have had to learn a similar lesson in my own marriage. My man and I fought bitterly for years and the word “divorce” came up in the rough patch after our daughter was born. However, our couples counselor uses the Imago approach which holds that many couples go through three stages: love without knowledge (the honeymoon), knowledge without love (disillusionment and power struggle) and, if they can work through the second stage they arrive at, knowledge with love. After many years in the marriage trenches, we have finally arrived at stage three. Unfortunately, Pharrell’s happiness seems to depend on happiness without knowledge, and require too much willful ignorance of others’ suffering. I have never considered that type of ignorance to be bliss.
UPDATE 6/10: Since the writing and publication of this article, it has come to my attention that Pharrell has jumped on the Wal-Mart love train and did a recent concert for the notoriously exploitative corporation’s shareholders with Robin Thicke. One more thing to be UNhappy about. Oh, Pharrell, when will you learn to use your powers for good?
Related Reading: Is Robin Thicke Trolling Feminists?
Aya de Leon teaches creaive writing at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Bitch magazine, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, Essence Magazine, the Feminist Wire, My Brown Baby, The Good Men Project, Adios Barbie, KQED Pop, and she was recently a guest on HuffPostLive. She is currently completing a sex worker heist novel, as well as blogging and tweeting about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.wordpress.com.