Some public songs stay in the mind for good reasons. Hearing the massed crowds of the Wembley FA cup final sing Abide with Me always turned my flesh to a gooseberry patch. Any rendition of Jerusalem, its soaring tune coupled with Blake’s brilliant imagistic words, takes me to another place. And I’d cast a slightly smaller vote for the English rugby crowd breaking into Swing Low Sweet Chariot and its delicious irrelevance to the bone-crunching game.
But I was never a fan of the dirge we call the national anthem, neither the treacle-laden tune nor the archaic words which tend (like many national anthems) to suggest some kind of racial superiority. If Jeremy Corbyn declines to sing it, that’s fine by me. It may hasten the momentum for a replacement (the aforementioned Jerusalem is my favourite). But it did make me think of the most appalling, cringely embarrassing god-awful public song which we would all be well rid of, yet which appears somehow to survive year after terrible year.
Your support is called for a national (global?) ban on ritual that is the song Happy Birthday. It may well be that somewhere on our crowded planet is an individual who enjoys the embarrassment of sitting with a sheepish grin while a series of so-called friends (often in a state of inebriation) bellow in his or her direction this piece of trite non-musicality and its infantile words.
The recipient is expected to feign some kind of delight or astonishment at this hugely original act, to be moved almost to tears at this celebration of them having advanced yet one more year towards the grave. The act of singing the piece (I can barely bring myself to describe it as a ‘tune’) is often compounded by the bringing in of a cake with candles – sometimes even the fizzy variety if this is in an Italian restaurant and the cake is carried in by a tired Sicilian anxious for the end of his shift – which the birthday boy or girl is then required to blow out with one breath.
Ironically, the older the person, the less likely this achievement is, so that some poor octogenarians are left gasping like a diver with the bends after a series of frenetic puffs leave 65 candles still alight.
Nor is this all. Knowing no mercy, it is not that rare for the celebrant’s colleagues to thump the table shouting ‘Speech! Speech!’ heaping embarrassment upon embarrassment for the poor wretch who manages in reply to mumble a few incoherent words while desperately hoping for the intervention of a miracle such as a tsunami. Consider for a moment the profundity and thought-provoking words of this piece:
Happy birthday to you/Happy Birthday to you/Happy Birthday dear ********/Happy Birthday to you.
Can so little ever have been said and with such repetition? Is the total lack of wit, irony, imagery or other verbal skills a record for sixteen words (actually only four words repeated three times plus a slight digression in line three for the recipient’s name)?
Nor does the tune itself have me reaching for musical hyperboles. I am no musician but suspect the range of notes covered is – what, two? Let’s be kind and say three.
What could replace this cringing Happy Birthday ritual? One suggestion is that nothing should replace it. Simply remove it from our culture and allow any birthday celebrations (and after a certain age that word ‘celebration’ becomes somewhat ambivalent) to find their own level.
Do not expect the birthday boy or girl to get up and speak, as the majority of people, (extroverts such as myself excepted), do not relish speaking in public.
There have been other birthday innovations, though mainly ephemeral. The birthday strip-o-gram or sing-o-gram seem to have fallen away recently, possibly because they were always even more cheesy than the song.
Consider the possibility that birthday celebrations, along with Christmas celebrations (for the small number of practising Christians apart) belong to our childhood and thereafter are artificially sustained for reasons we do not understand, much think about, nor even less enjoy. Why do we bother?
Children love birthday parties. They can play musical chairs and pin the tail on the donkey. They may even love singing Happy Birthday. Let our birthday energies go towards making a success of children’s birthday parties.
Just imagine. A future where we adults no longer have to sing Happy Birthday or (worse) have it sung to us. Pure bliss.