I was at a concert last week where the lead singer-songwriter actually bemoaned being happily married.
As she put it, she is now so happy that she can’t write good songs.
There is this idea out there that it’s not possible to write good “happy” songs. It’s fair enough. A lot of the best and most beautiful songs are sad. And if you’ve ever heard a song about “being happy”, you know you’re in for a grating, cloying, sappy, toothless musical experience.
Even the “happiness” songs we like typically aren’t made great by their lyrics. They’re boosted by a good dance beat, music video, or strong vocals. If you’re a singer-songwriter, you’re probably not going to replicate the success of Pharell’s “Happy”.
So, what to do?
I don’t think the solution is to experience pain and write painful, sad songs. I think it’s not just possible but necessary that singer-songwriters find a way to write joyful songs that are also lyrically good.
The mistake which most attempts at “happy” songs make is to attempt to be about happiness. In other words, they try to focus on the experience of joy instead of focusing on the experiences that bring about joy. “Everything is great, and I’m happy” won’t fly as a lyric.
More often than not, the experiences that bring about joy involve tragedy, darkness, or pain – and overcoming them. For that reason, you can’t have a good happy song that isn’t touched by tragedy or darkness. Even “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music has moments
When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
The reason is that any good song relates the whole of the human experience. Purely sad songs without any vision of the ideal or any hope for redemption are also generally bad.
If you’re a creative storyteller, there are a few different ways your good happy song can touch on darkness without being defined by it. I’ll use examples from one of my favorite songwriters, Jason Isbell. His songs are almost always dark, but he’s written a few “happy” songs which illustrate my theory well.
1. Tell the story of how you emerged from aloneness/suffering.
“Cover Me Up” is a sweet song of love that is fundamentally wholesome and healthy. But it starts in a place of suffering. That beginning gives it a redemptive arc that makes this happy song a great song.
2. Contrast joy/goodness against tragedy/evil.
This song also (under the surface) acknowledges the troubles that will come with life. It’s sort of the opposite of “Cover Me Up.” It’s not redeeming someone from a world of suffering – it’s preparing someone for a world that has suffering in it. It does that by painting a clear, rich image of the good.
3. Choose an ideal and relate the struggle to reach that ideal
This song is all about the halting, stumbling attempt to get your shit together. It acknowledges the challenging nature of moral growth, but it’s also fundamentally hopeful and positive. This song does not suck. It’s real about the good, not romantic.
Here are few other motifs which good happy songs in the folk, singer-songwriter, country world often hit upon. These all invoke some loss of something or some place of darkness before the dawn:
- Emergence from ignorance
- The end of winter
- Protective love of children/home/family
- The end of a long breakup/quitting a job
- The return to home
- The return to the road