NOW 87: Pharrell Williams – Happy

In the last essay I tried to define eras of pop music during the NOW era. It’s easy to do it by ‘decades’ of NOW compilations: NOW 1 to 10, from 1983 to 1986, seemed to be the Live Aid era of U2, Queen and Phil Collins; NOW 11 to 20 took us to 1990 through the Jam & Lewis era; NOW 21 to 30 were the early 1990s and the rise of guitar-driven rock and processed beats in equal measure; then came The Spice Girls (NOW 31 to 40); Swedish pop with American vocal groups and singers like Britney (NOW 41 to 50); Pharrell Williams and The Neptunes (NOW 51 to 60); Xenomania (NOW 61 to 70); and another era of Max Martin with singers like Katy Perry and Pink (NOW 71 to 80). I reckon Calvin Harris can lay claim to NOW 81 to 90, and Drake and the hiphop sound is the key component of music from NOW 91 to 100. Who will be next? I hope it’s country.

Before talking about one of the Neptunes, a quick mention for Juicy J, who rapped on Dark Horse, the latest US number one for Katy Perry written by Max Martin and Dr Luke. It was Max’s 17th and his eighth to be sung by Katy Perry; I hope Katy still gets him Christmas gifts.

The song that knocked Dark Horse off the top in the US was the earworm of the decade. Pharrell Williams is a musical genius, the Stevie Wonder or Nile Rodgers of this era. He famously sees colours when he hears music, and in 2013 had three songs on the charts at any one time. He would happily forget Blurred Lines, would never forget Get Lucky and will forever make money from Happy.

Imagine being the behatted star: turn on the radio anywhere in the world – anywhere, in the world –  and you are guaranteed to hear either ‘We’re up all night to get lucky’ or ‘Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof’ or Robin Thicke trying to have sex with a girl.

Happy is the best of the three and had a huge life which saw it become the soundtrack of people dancing and clapping. It featured on a film about a curmudgeonly villain Gru trying to get used to being good, raising his three kids with his new partner and defeating the evil Russell Brand (I mean the character Brand voiced) with the help of his yellow Minions (who would have their own brilliant movie in 2015).

Pharrell is the sole artist credited with writing Happy, which is a perfect pop song that was number one in the UK on three different occasions between January and March 2014, one of the most durable pop songs of the pre-streaming era. Happy is thus the only credible playlist choice from NOW 87, which came out in Spring 2014.

I was at law school, learning about torts (not crimes but lesser evils), contract law, the UK constitution (unwritten and with lots of conventions), criminal law (sexual touching is bad), equity and trusts, land law (horrible but useful), European Union laws (which need to be updated after Brexit) and competition law (cartels are bad). I also enjoyed mooting, arguing the legal points of a case from both sides, and made a couple of friends at the time who were smart and determined to become lawyers.

By about March 2014, I realised I did not want to pursue the Legal Practice Course (which would cost £16,000) that was necessary to secure a chance at a traineeship at a law firm (what’s finer than gold dust?). I liked learning about Donoghue v Stephenson, the famous case in tort law where someone thought a snail’s remains were in a bottle of beer and the very fear of it led to liability on behalf of the vendor; thus there needs to be ‘reasonable proximity to harm’ to be responsible for a tort. The lecturer, Max Alavy, was outstanding; I attended all of his lectures (skipping those of many other lecturers) but all the answers were in the books. Essentially the Graduate Diploma in Law was seven sets of books to regurgitate in seven three-hour exams, with two essays throughout the year as well.

I failed six of the seven exams. When I learned this, I just laughed hollowly.

I spent most of early 2014 in the company of Amanda, a girl from California who loved Prince, Fleetwood Mac, Harry Potter and TV shows. I treated her as a serious girlfriend and I enjoyed hanging out with her at weekends and on ‘Orange Wednesdays’ where I could take her to the movies for free. I spent a lot of time down in Kingston, South-West London, and was accepted into her small circle of friends: Emily Anne, a biologist; Ed, her videographer boyfriend; and Allyson, a child with an innocent heart and ambivalent sexuality.

I was happier again with a new friend, writing songs and watching lots of TV. I remember a lazy New Year’s Day at her flat as we saw in 2014. I also remember the 2013/4 football season, when I watched a lot of sport on BT Sport, who had the rights to several live Premier League games. Watford, having missed out on promotion to that division, were struggling in the league below. I had bought a season ticket but would sit in silence (with my friend having got in for free) trying to enjoy something I used to enjoy. It would have helped if Watford could have won a game that autumn, as nine winless matches cost the manager his job.

There are 46 songs on NOW 87, the most to have ever been on one. Songs were getting zippier, all the better to stream. The streamiest was by a former child star who was continuing her life as an adult performer, in both senses of the word.

Miley Cyrus would knock Royals by Lorde off the top of the US Hot 100 (after Lorde had knocked her off initially), and she did this in a novel way. Chris Molanphy produced an entire podcast in his Hit Parade series about music videos, in which he concluded that a risqué video where the performer licks hammers, rides a wrecking ball and wears few clothes can push a song to number one.

Initially, Wrecking Ball leapt from the fifties all the way to the top because the video was a cultural moment. Chris says that after Youtube views starting to count for the charts, a new kind of song entered the hit parade, including Harlem Shake by Bauuer. Gangnam Style was too late to benefit from it by about two weeks. Incredibly, Miley went back to number one thanks to a member of the public, Steve Kardynal, dressed up as Miley in a complete shot-for-shot parody then shared reactions to his video when he played it to users of the video streaming service Chatroulette.

The Youtube clip, posted over Thanksgiving 2013, has been viewed 166m times as of July 2018; it shows the reactions to viewers of the video, the cultural craze for ‘Reaction Videos’ and TV shows like Gogglebox, where you are watching the watchers in an act where TV eats itself. The significance of the parody video is that it uses Wrecking Ball in the video and thus counts as ‘one stream’ of the song, which helped it vault back to number one.

The UK charts have just brought in Youtube views, with George Ezra having the first number one of the new era. Three Lions, the England Euro ’96 song, has benefitted greatly from the rule change.

As for dancers in the clubs who wanted more than Pharrell and Miley, DJs kept churning out music for tushes to shake to: Calvin Harris teamed up with Alesso and Hurts on Under Control; Alesso two-times on a track written by Benny Blanco and Ryan Tedder, If I Lose Myself, which is credited to OneRepublic & Alesso; Martin Garrix & Jay Hardway produced Wizard, which announces ‘the drop’ with the word ‘drop’; DJ Fresh and Jay Fay enlisted Ms Dynamite (whose durability is incredible) on Dibby Dibby Sound, which sounds like the Notting Hill Carnival.

Avicii’s latest hit from True is Hey Brother, sung by Dan Tyminski who is famous as the vocalist on the big songs on the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, while there is a name new to a NOW but old to the clubs. Tijs Verwest aka Tiesto links up with the super team of Carl Falk, Rami Yacoub and Wayne Hector (who can all, of course, still walk down the street mostly unmolested) to produce Red Lights, which sounds like a perfect intersection between the charts and the clubs (though, kids, don’t run any red lights).

The amount of money DJs like Calvin, Tiesto and Avicii earned for one engagement is in inverse proportion to the amount of work they did at those gigs; all the work was done beforehand in the studio. The DJ was there to provide the vibe and get people moving. Las Vegas emerged as a global centre of club culture, bizarrely. Returning with vibes of their own to a NOW are Fuse ODG, with Million Pound Girl (Badder Than Bad), John Newman (Out Of My Head, full of rich piano and strings) and Foxes with Let Go For Tonight, full of the same piano but with some awesome drums. Pharrell two-times by giving his song Can’t Rely On You to Paloma Faith.

Number one songs in the UK in early 2014 included Money On My Mind by Sam Smith (with irritating chorus), Tsunami (Jump) by DVBBS & Gorgeous featuring the vocals of Tinie Tempah (I never liked it but appreciated the syncopation after ‘the drop’), My Love by Route 94 featuring new name Jess Glynne, the first of her seven UK number ones so far (as of July 2018) and the addictive I Got U by Duke Dumont featuring Jax Jones, which samples My Love Is Your Love by Whitney Houston.

Another fascinating use of catalogue comes on Of The Night by Bastille, who mash together Rhythm is a Dancer by Snap and Rhythm of the Night by Corona, two songs which were both over 20 years old by the time Bastille worked their magic in 2013. I also loved Ready For Your Love by Gorgon City featuring Uzoechi Emenike, who records and produces as MNEK, who is fast becoming one of the UK’s most important producers.

A new year brings a host of new names to NOW 87: Elyar Fox (the quirky and poppy Do It All Over Again), A Great Big World (Say Something, with Christina Aguilera, which is wetter than wet), girlband Neon Jungle (club banger Braveheart, where the drop is counted in in Japanese), Vance Joy (the twee Riptide) and, closing Disc 2, American Authors with the hook-filled Best Day of my Life, which I loved. London Grammar, the critically acclaimed band fronted by the stagefrit Hannah Reid, appear with Hey Now; like James Blake or The xx, two acts which took the Mercury Prize in the 2010s, I admire rather than love the music of London Grammar, undoubtedly atmospheric and ‘hauntingly beautiful’ though it is. Chris Imlach introduced me to Phildel, who did much the same but was not on a NOW.

I’ve found a record for names within the brackets. On Dance With Me by Le Youth featuring Dominique Young Unique, 19 writers are credited. That means each songwriter receives just over 5% of whatever is left over in publishing and mechanical rights; the song cuts up the lyrics of No Scrubs by TLC. Ed Sheeran would later allude the melody of the song in Shape of You, but over summer 2014 he was preparing for the release of his second album.

You will remember, if you went clubbing in early 2014, songs like Dr Who! (Tujano & Plastic Funk ft Sneakbo) and Control (Matrix & Futurebound ft Max Marshall). Sub Focus are here with the euphoric retro-house track Turn Back Time which contains a Roland drum machine snare sound and an incredible vocal hook before ‘the drop’. It’s a slice of 1990 in 2014.

The Vamps continue their run of hits with Wild Heart, written by nine writers including Jamie Scott, who wrote one of the great lost pop songs, Searching, which was big on Radio 2 in about 2005. 5 Seconds of Summer, straight outta Australia and picked to tour with One Direction, announce themselves with She Looks So Perfect, which namechecks American Apparel, a surefire way to get sponsorship and thus free underwear. In 2018 the band’s third album has landed straight in at the top of the US charts, following the achievement of their first two LPs.

Story of My Life sees One Direction move into Chinese folk song (nope, it’s a ballad, co-written by the band with Jamie Scott). Little Mix two-time with the 2014 Sport Relief single, a cover of Cameo’s Word Up!, and their own song Move. 2013 X Factor winner, prison officer Sam Bailey, takes the Demi Lovato song Skyscraper and sings the hell out of it, makes it her own, ‘what I like about you Sam…’, ‘you remind me of a young Mary Byrne’. Sam was dropped from Syco in 2015. Toby Gad two-times on NOW 87 since he wrote both Skyscraper and All Of Me, a song with piano and vocal played by John Stephens aka John Legend. The perfect wedding song, John will never have to work again.

Gary Barlow is still working, bringing out his second memoir in 2018 and entertaining crowds across the nation with his middle-of-the-road anthems. A gig in Cornwall was screened on the BBC in July 2018; his setlist for a show in Manchester included 25 songs, all of which have been hits. They include songs from his solo catalogue: Open Road, Forever Love, Love Won’t Wait and Let Me Go. The last of these, on NOW 87, was promoted in a documentary to celebrate the release of his 2013 solo album Since I Saw You Last.

Let Me Go was really about his stillborn child but had a lyric set to a stomping Mumford beat. It’s his most tender song. Gary (still not Sir Gary, strangely) has won Ivor Novello Awards for Shine, Pray and Back for Good, was the Songwriter of the Year in 1994 – Adele and George Michael have won it twice – and Gary was awarded an Outstanding Contribution to British Music award in 2012 along with his Take That bandmates. Other winners of that prize include Portishead (2016), Boy George (2014), Duran Duran (2005) and Norman Cook (2007).

Guy Chambers, another Songwriter of the Year, co-wrote Crying For No Reason by Katy B, a slow ballad in the Adele mould, while Fraser T Smith helped Example write Kids Again. Dr Luke is one of 10 writers on Timber, Senor Worldwide’s latest idiotic club song, while he guests on Enrique Iglesias’s equally idiotic I’m a Freak. Dr Luke and Ke$ha would be at war for several years and the performer’s contract held against her will in a court case that eventually was won by Dr Luke, whose reputation is untainted but who seems unfairly targeted by the mob.

Cee-Lo Green has also been subjected to criticism for saying and doing stupid things; not even his status as judge on The Voice in the USA could spark his career back into life, though he is listed as one of the seven writers on Pixie Lott’s hit Nasty, which samples Funky President by James Brown and two other songs. Pixie seems to be doing whatever she is told, as is Ellie Goulding, who covered The Waterboys’ classic folk song How Long Will I Love You for Children In Need 2013. Ellie was going out with Radio 1 DJ Greg James at the time; Greg is now engaged to someone who isn’t a pop singer.

In 2014, despite his numerous well-advertised indiscretions, R Kelly returns to a NOW as the featured artist on Do What U Want by Lady Gaga. The song’s lyric, ‘do what you want with my body’ must be ironic, and it is one of Gaga’s weakest singles. I feel her Imperial Phase passed when Artpop didn’t create songs as huge as those on her first two albums; her next project was a jazz album with Tony Bennett. With a starring role in a remake of A Star Is Born, Gaga’s career will spike again. R Kelly had his music removed from Spotify playlists, though a subscriber can still listen to his brilliant music. Who will be the next to be ‘muted’ by the mob?

Kanye West, probably, who features along with Q-Tip and Lil Wayne on the excellent Busta Rhymes song Thank You. And I almost got through this essay without mentioning #SELFIE by The Chainsmokers, a meme in the form of a song.


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