Let’s start with the most fundamental reason of all.
1. It’s impossible to sing. Granted, I’m borderline tone deaf so I may struggle more than most. The first 4 notes are downright depressing, like the distant moan of an old diesel engine warming up. Then the emphasis is clearly on the wrong word: not on ‘happy’, nor ‘birthday’, nor even the all-important ’you’. But ‘To’. A preposition!
And as for the chord structure, dear god, that melody is feeble at best and melancholic if you’re being honest. Remember, this is meant to be a celebration of the most wonderful event on earth: the miracle of birth!
From there it goes from bad to worse. The lyrics repeat themselves but the melody doesn’t. Instead, it jumps an octave in ‘birth-day’, assuming we were all raised by a family of acapella singers.
By this stage, it’s not just me that’s wildly out of pitch. Everyone is mumbling and hoping for the candles to be blown out to extinguish the torture. If it wasn’t for a birthday cake at this point the celebration would never get back on track.
Only once has the world’s most popular song been sung well.
On the 19th May 1962, in Madison Square Garden, Marilyn Monroe steamily sang the song to President John F. Kennedy. Ironically, it wasn’t his birthday. Nonetheless, she nailed it.
JFK was so moved that he joined her on stage and said ‘I can now retire from politics’. The song could have retired with him, going out on an unexpected high. Tragically, neither happened. Instead, one of the USA’s great leaders came to a sudden end, whilst one of the world’s worst songs continued its meteoric rise to power.
2. It was never meant to be a birthday song in the first place. In 1893, sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill introduced the song “Good Morning to All” to Patty’s kindergarten class in Kentucky. They wanted something ‘easy’ for the kids to sing – they were clearly several notes short of an octave. Only in 1912, did the song appear with the lyrics ‘Happy Birthday’ resulting in its universal adoption. Incredible, I know.
3. It’s responsible for bringing out the worst in corporate America. In 1935, The Summy Company registered a copyright for the song without a mention of the dear old Hill sisters.
Then in 1988, Warner/Chappell Music saw the dollar signs and purchased the company and copyrights for US$25 million.
Warner then stated that any unauthorized public performances of the song were illegal unless royalties are paid. If you were caught singing Happy Birthday in a restaurant on Pop’s 80th, you would have to pay $700!
After raking in a fortune in film rights, thankfully it all backfired. The copyright was deemed illegal and Warner got their comeuppance, having to return $14m in royalties.
This was a bittersweet pill to swallow. Warner got what they deserved but without royalties slowing its spread, ‘Happy Birthday to You’ was free to continue its world domination unimpeded.
4. You have a choice. Evidently, I’m not the only person thinking that with musical masterpieces such as Schubert’s Symphony no. 9, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 and The Bee Gees ‘Saturday Night Fever’, the human race can do better when it comes to celebrating the day of our birth.
In 2012, the Free Music Archive (FMA) held a competition for a new birthday song in a courageous attempt to “unseat ‘Happy Birthday to You’ from its cultural throne”. They received more than 100 entries, all of which are better and are Creative Commons licensed (sorry Warner).
First place went to Monk Turner + Fascinoma’s “It’s Your Birthday!” It’s quaint but I can live with quaint. Another notable contender was the toe-tappingly jazzy The Pendulum Swings — (It Must Be) Somebody’s Birthday. There is another little gem, but I’ll get to that…
We all know that this heroic coup d’etat failed. In many ways, this makes Happy Birthday to You’ even more remarkable in its resilience.
But every song has its day and this song has had way more birthdays than it ever deserved.
September & October birthdays, this is a call to arms! There are more birthday celebrations in the next few weeks than at any other time of the year, so this is our best chance to give birthdays a new song.
The time has come to overthrow this inharmonious birthday jingle-jangle and appoint a worthy successor.
Above all, something singable.
So dim the lights, put a match to the candles and warm-up those vocal cords.
Ladies and gentleman, from deep down in the free music archive, here is the new Birthday Song: Happy.Birthday.Mr. Man. by Mr Man