Sunday, May 29, 2011

We Need a New Birthday Song

Music is powerful. It's amazing how few notes it takes to raise goosebumps on your skin, whether it's a really catchy melody or an anxiety-inducing dissonance. For example, the foreshadowing two-note refrain from Jaws, or the piercing shriek of the violins from Psycho. Both can make your hair stand on end—but neither are as disturbing, as morbidly virose as the Birthday Song.

You've heard it. You know exactly what I'm talking about. It's obligatorily sung by nearly every American many times throughout the year, and as we all know, not everyone has a good singing voice. Couple this with the usual lack of a predetermined starting note so that singers have no idea in which key to sing, or at what tempo to sing it. The result is a cacophony of disparate voices disturbingly serenading the poor bastard who's celebrating another trip around the sun in 10-part disharmony.

And the words aren't always the same. The lyrics feature a fill-in-the-blank like the world's worst Mad Lib wherein the victim's name, nickname, moniker, or relationship title will be inserted. Considering that none of the singers ever coordinate this ahead of time, this moment in the song usually results in awkward laughter as half the chorus switches what they're singing mid-word, embarassed for having sung "Eleanor" instead of "Grandma."

I cringe every time I hear it. Uninterested in contributing to the creepy crooning, I'm likely to silently mouth the words. This allows me to appear compassionate and social while sparing myself and others from further destroying the sonic spectrum in the room.

The tune and its meaning are sung in at least forty countries worldwide, as far apart as Switzerland and China. It's likely to be one of the most recognized melodies in human history, and many wish to hold onto it for tradition. Because the notation and words first appeared in print in 1912, the song is reaching its official 100-year anniversary next year which gives us just a few short months to find a suitable replacement to send it off into a centenarian's retirement. Some suggestions already exist.

A couple of British folk who penned songs under the name Lennon/McCartney wrote their take on the song as the lead-off to the second disc on the Beatles' eponymous white-sleeved release. "Birthday" was a song that was not originally intended to take over party duties as traditional song, but before they knew it, Beatlemania had pushed the song into heavy rotation at celebrations worldwide. The song was based on earlier attempt at revolutionizing the birthday song, a 1957 tune entitled "Happy, Happy Birthday Baby." This earlier hit, unfortunately, did not catch on.

Imagine singing that fifty times a year. It's no wonder that we haven't replaced the old-fashioned melody: It's short, it's simple for even small children to sing, and the lyrics are repetetive. Thus, this suggestion by Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force didn't catch on:

Even the title, "Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary," would be impossible for small children to say, but at least it features sweet artificial harmonics. Looks like the Beatles' submission is winning so far.

Actually, it was popular already when I was a kid. To pump up the excitement and throw children into a quarter-fueled frenzy at arcade/pizza restaurant combos, the Showbiz Pizza house band The Rock-a-fire Explosion belted out the song with the help of Billy Bob, the creepy animatronic bear.

I remember sitting in a Showbiz Pizza as a small child and wondering how it could be everyone in the band's "birthday too, yeah." I still don't understand that line, but Paul McCartney was on a significant quantity of drugs around the time this crazy idea for a song materialized anyway. Hey kids, let's sing a song written on drugs!

Some restaurants, either to avoid monotony or to increase quirkiness, have penned their own birthday songs. These range from embarassing to annoying, and don't promise to be suitable replacements. Recently, as I sat in a Longhorn Steakhouse in Brunswick, Georgia, the entire staff piled out of the kitchen not once, but three times to sing this gem to dinner guests (performed in a chanting style while clapping hands):

We can't sing, so here's our thing
Okra, fries, sweet sweet tea
Have a happy birth-a-day!

Although this song wins in my opinion based solely on its brevity, I do hold a soft spot in my heart for the traditional song. As a very young child, too young to remember it myself, my mom performed good night songs for me.

"What would you like me to sing?" she would ask.

"Happy birthday!" I yelled every time, and she'd oblige. "Again!" I would shriek when it was done. My mother assumed that I really, really liked the song, but I feel that it was more of the sleepy imagery of presents and cake that the melody conjured. It's just too bad that the same song doesn't inspire such sweet daydreams instead of the vivid nightmares I now experience.


  1. please please some-one write a new birthday song that we can sing

  2. Such a nice blog and i appreciate your all efforts about your thoughts. it's really good work. well done.
    beatles happy birthday