Music Features

Don't Worry, Be Happy

I am currently starting a massive guide by the North Carolina genre movie expert John Kenneth Muir entitled Horror Films of the 1980s, which I hope to write about here once I finally get through the thing. Opening up, Muir links the horror explosion of the greed decade to a dichotomy between two great catchphrases it spawned.

"Be afraid. Be very afraid"

This came from David Cronenberg's classic and superior remake of The Fly.

"Don't worry. Be happy."

This came from the big hit off of vocal artiste Bobby McFerrin's Simple Pleasures.

The general idea is that the 1980s represented a peak in the gap between public image and perception of the American powers that be, and the dire circumstances the country was settling into. As America is currently so deep into the nostalgia cycle that it is currently exaggerating the policy errors of Reagan's administration into a bloody, unwinnable war, the climate of the 1980s is creepy to read about. Today, America is so intent on avoiding the fear, not worrying, and being happy that it has projected its decline onto trivial subjects such as Hollywood starlets. Are Lohan, Hilton and Spears our surrogate Reagans?

In the 1980s, the first George Bush used Don't Worry, Be Happy as a triumphant campaign anthem. Never mind that the joyful song, much like Sly Stone's Hot Fun in the Summertime, is a sarcastic and satirical celebration, contrasting a mindlessly positive outlook with bleak circumstances and context. Sure, the chorus everybody remembers from McFerrin's hit encourage smiling above all else, but if you take a look the verses mostly refer to traumatic events like eviction that reveal a dire economic crisis.

Don't Worry, Be Happy, regardless of its ironic content, was a part of leading the United States into war and economic ruin under the leadership of our first Bush. Who listens for lyrical subtlety at political rallies? The song sounded happy, so why should we worry? Bush had the commodity happy reign of Reagan to coast on, so such a sublime and laid back tune was a perfect soundtrack for him. Lucky for the 1990s, he didn't find such a perfect single for his next go 'round.

I have to say that I don't think George H.W. Bush had an original idea in his political bone marrow. His son has kind of a transgressive edge, a willingness to diverge into complete absurdity and challenge every prudent concern with an apocalyptic determination to drive America into declining empire obsolescence, our own Nero or Caligula. The first Bush, however, was just, once again, borrowing from Reagan in galvanizing the voting public behind a ridiculously inappropriate campaign song.

Before George Herbert Walker Bush's Don't Worry, Be Happy scored triumph in 1988, Reagan rode to re-election with Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. in 1984. Anxious Americans were eager to pump their fists and declare pride and victory, and the visceral synth of the Boss seemed perfect at the time. Too bad the song is an obviously embittered narrative of a veteran wronged in the futile Vietnam crusade, right? Too bad its own cherished performer and composer publicly objected to its appropriation for Reagan's crusade, right?

Apparently not. Reagan and Bush won in those years, and the irony of their themes was relegated to magazines. Meanwhile, the voters who proudly remember those victories hum the melodies oblivious to their angry and/or satirical intent. Springsteen makes us feel like we're kicking ass, and McFerrin makes us feel like everything's okay.

It is all very depressing in looking at mass American culture. You are reading No Ripcord. You are probably British and you probably have an engaged, curious interest in pop and all that tries to express, with all of its deceptive complexities and potential. I hate to hazard a guess, but this may not be true for most of America. I fear that, in today's culture, we could be completely swamped under the End Times Republican Regime should they think to hire Pharrell.