Every year has a song that is unavoidable, and this year it was Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It was omnipresent, so that even its initial partisans became weary of it in the end. I first heard it one night on a road trip, returning from Michigan. The radio was on low, and I heard what I thought was a nice old dusty I wasn’t familiar with–one of those subtle, enduring ballads by groups with names like the Moonglows, the Robins, and the Drifters. When I turned it up and found it was McFerrin doing his usual multitracked, a cappella shtick, I was at first charmed. Here was faithful revitalization of an old genre.
Where those old songs give one a reassuring feeling even as they discuss personal calamities–losing a lover, or a job, or family, or discovering an overfondness for something addictive like alcohol, or pot, or, again, love–McFerrin’s calamities are of the easily overcome, cardboard sort that appear in brief glimpses during ads depicting Reagan’s America, brief signs of the bad that we can shoo away if we only keep up a good mental attitude. Yet it isn’t innocuousness that makes McFerrin’s song lame–how profound is “When a Woman Loves a Man,” even when it’s sung by Billie Holiday?–it is that the song lacks any sort of aesthetic distance, any sort of realization that a song can do many things all at the same time. It’s “feel good” without any true confrontation with the bad. Innumerable extra listenings only confirm that the song has no surprises, no insights, no life. It is as flat as lost ambitions, as empty as an excuse.