“How Old Are You Now?”

Over tapas and perhaps too much sangria one evening last week, I got into an extensive debate with a friend about whether or not something could “live on” if it was not “great.”

“Only the really good stuff survives. Can you name anything that’s still popular from over a hundred years ago that’s no good?” my friend asked almost rhetorically, pretty much convinced that I would not be able to come up with something to refute his claim.

Even though I completely disagreed with him, I was in something of a bind since I have made it a life’s goal to not think in terms of good vs. bad. If I don’t like something, I’m fully aware that my feelings toward it have more to do with myself than whether or not it is objectively good or bad, and my attraction to things has changed considerably over time. The same seems true for just about everyone else. Therefore to assess something based on its popularity (either among the general public or a small coterie of taste arbiters) holds no validity for me.

If opinion has no role in establishing quality, whether or not something remains popular for a very long period of time cannot be used as a way to prove that it’s “good.” So even though I have no idea what “good” means (nor do I ultimately believe that anyone else does), I decided to play the game just to challenge the notion that what the majority values over time could determine what is worthwhile. Of course if I were to play this game by my own rules, my subjective assertion that something was not good would have no more weight than the weight of that group of many people over time. But, chalk it up to that blasted sangria, I summoned up my own subjectivity in an attempt to refute subjectivity overall.

“The song ‘Happy Birthday’!” I blurted out. “The music is dreadful and the lyrics are utterly insipid. Yet it has undeniably been the most popular song for well over a century and I highly doubt it will ever go away, though I often wish it would.”

Birthday Cake Profile

Image via Bigstock.

That pretty much ended the debate. However, the following day I received an email from a different friend in response to my previous essay on these pages in which I described my personal realization that my own composing emanated from the same impulse as my writing about the music of other composers—advocacy through communication. For him, however, the “virtue of a piece of music isn’t its ability to ‘communicate,’ but rather its ability to supply a unique experience.” And here’s the zinger:

“No one in new music will ever communicate more directly than ‘Happy Birthday’.”

So then, might “Happy Birthday” be one of the great aesthetic achievements of mankind and might my disdain for it somehow reveal that I’m actually pretty close-minded? Or is my second friend right and might it ultimately not be about communication after all?

6 thoughts on ““How Old Are You Now?”

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Music as communication or not. A very old debate. Old but important and always present!

    There are many thoughts about it. Some of them include that elusive word “expression”.

    Very interesting what your second friends says about music’s ability to suply a unique experience.

    As for “Happy Birthday”, I don’t think if it’s a good example. It was never meant to be “Art music”, but a piece for kindergarten children. And to sing it at birthday celebrations with the lyrics we all know has become a tradition in the Western civilization. It’s music for practical reasons.

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  2. Matt Schoendorff

    Efficiency of communication is but one of many possible rubrics by which one could judge an aesthetic experience. No matter the rubric(s) used, I like to think that it comes down to a question of whether or not the time and effort spent in exposure to the experience is worth it to the audience, both as individuals and as a whole. By its very nature, music demands attention from an audience for a given amount of time, and time is our only one true non-renewable, non-commutable resource. The aesthetic experience better be worth my time and attention!

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  3. Marc Ostrow

    Frank – I guess it was the sangria but until I read your post I’d pretty much forgotten that part of our dinner conversation. I didn’t think of the argument at the time but “Happy Birthday” is not a good example. Songs that are used for ceremonial (e.g., “Hail To The Chief”, the “Star Spangled Banner”) or liturgical purposes tend to have very long lives once adopted regardless of the artistic merit of these works. I think “Happy Birthday” falls into the ceremonial category. I think it would be difficult to come up with a “bad” work, however defined that didn’t have ceremonial, liturgical or educational (e.g., nursery rhymes) significance. Perhaps some food for thought for our next get-together.

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  4. lawrencedillon

    Funny, I think Happy Birthday is a very remarkable little tune. The path from the first phrase to the third is both perfectly logical and shocking in scope. The amount of ground covered in short period of time creates a fascinating scenario, one in which the third phrase seems to call for a much slower tempo than the first, which throws off any sense of symmetry. In many performances, the third phrase even ends with a 5/4 bar. Nice.

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  5. chris s

    I agree with Dillon, Happy Birthday is actually not a bad tune, and has some interesting features. Also, when you solfege it you’d be surprised by some of the vocal leaps are set up well and there are one or two imp[lied harmonies that are interesting. Ok, it ain’t thje most advanced tune in the world (we can just try and sing a few of Hadyn’s Minuet’s from his string quartets for quite complex yet sounding at first simple. and of course later on we have Schoneberg, Webern, and Meredith Monk)

    Yes the lyrics of Happy Birthday are simple and insipid, but so are many lyrics for ceremonial use. Their purpose is to be as economical as possible to get the message through with easily comprehensible words. This opens up the risk for a string of banalities.

    Far worse tunes are some of the original chorale tunes Bach harmonized. Not all, but you appreciate more what Bach did to enrich them and make them far more interesting than their origins. Schubert, who has written manyt wonderful melodies, many are treated very simply, with minor alterations adding up slowly over time so that eventually they become unrecognizable (a great example is The Pilgrim). So, one could say on first appearance some Schubert melodies are not rather slim and not too interesting.

    Anyway, I could go on. You have raised a ton of interesting aesthetic questions as usual. Thanks!

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  6. lawrencedillon

    I can even admire the text: concise and focused, with no ponderous imagery, more to the point than most other texts that I can think of, save for those of a few minimalist operas.

    Reply

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