Phantom Songs: Bobby McFerrin – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

Phantom Songs is an ongoing series of musical pieces that you can’t quite put your finger on. You have most definitely heard the song before, but are most likely not able to pinpoint who made it, when it was released, and/or what the song is really about. All of the artist’s history and biography was either stolen from wikipedia or made up entirely.

Before we begin, I have to make a confession: as a low-brow pessimist, I find worrying to be a very important tool. It’s essential to get from point A to point B, especially living in New York. If you’re not worried about catching your train, then you’re going to be late a lot. If you’re going to be late a lot, you’re obviously not worried about your job. If you don’t worry about your job, you’ll lose your job. If you lose your job, you’ll have a lot of spare time. If you’re not worried about how to spend that time, you’ll probably wander a lot. If you’re not worried about where you’re going, you’ll probably end up in the wrong neighborhood. And if you’re not worried when the man asks you what time it is, well, you’re probably in a world of trouble.

But despite of that trouble, you probably shouldn’t worry. Just be happy. Right?

WRONG! Worrying makes the world go ’round! It’s how shit gets done! If everybody went around not caring about things, it would be pure chaos. Nothing would be accomplished and the whole world would fall apart. But yet, there’s still a niche group of people that follow this philosophy. Every generation has had one, from the Hippies to the DGAF [Don’t Give A Fuck™] crowd to the YOLO [You Only Laugh Once] believers. They’re a negative force working against society, living life as they see fit. Just last week, I had an interaction with one of my cashiers. He said, “You know what your problem is, Coze? You just sweat the small stuff too much. You need to not care all the time”. At that point I stated that it’s my job to worry about “the small stuff” and then requested to smell his breath. Jaegermeister. I sent his ass home and even though he’s on his last strike before firing, he just shrugged it off. Because, to him, life is too short. What’s a manager to do when all of his workers don’t care whether or not they lose their job and/or their kids go starving? Nothing. Don’t worry. Be happy.

I guess we have Bob Marley to blame for some of this. After all, he did write and perform this 1988 smash hit that crossed cultural boundaries and spread the good word of laziness. In even more dramatic fashion, he did it all while spending the previous 7 years dead. And no, despite popular beliefs, this is not a post-humous Bob Marley song. [But interestingly enough, the “Bob Marley” youtube video has almost 18 million hits. That means 18 million people thought that Bob Marley made this song] It’s actually by Bobby McFerrin, a guy that has won a lot more awards than Marley, for whatever it’s worth. Upon initial release, the song was catchy and infectious. Its a cappella beat is cute while the chorus provides an upbeat and positive message. But what you might not know is the extreme circumstances that Bobby wants you to brush off. Let’s dive into the lyrics and find out what he really wants us to do:

Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note

So it starts off by stating the obvious, that you’re about to hear a song and he wrote it. He then goes on to suggest that you “sing it note for note”. Herein lies the problem. If we sing it note for note, then we would also be claiming that we wrote the song, not Bobby McFerrin. I feel like the guy already has enough trouble being recognized, now he wants us to claim that we all wrote the song and he should get no credit whatsoever. This song is making me very worried about copyright infringement.

Don’t worry, be happy

Okay, so he doesn’t want us to worry about it. How nice of him. We can all just use this song freely and claim that we wrote it or Bob Marley wrote it or Sammy Hagar. It doesn’t matter. He’s such a stand-up guy!

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy
Don’t worry, be happy now

I mean, I can see some situations when worrying would make it double. Like if you had trouble with worrying too much, then worrying about your worrying problem would only make matters worse, which is worrisome. But if we ignore all of life’s problems, the problems will also double. I think Bobby and I are at a stalemate here. Worrying doesn’t directly solve problems, but neither does being happy. The fact that he’s demanding us to ignore our problems is making me worried. Maybe he’s the one causing the problems and this song is a plot of world domination and he’ll steal all the power while nobody is looking. They’re too busy whistling and dancing. That’s how world domination works. I looked that shit up.

Ain’t got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don’t worry, be happy

Allow me to be an optimist here and state that there is ALWAYS a place to lay your head. Even if you’re floating in negative space you can still lay your head in your hands, arms or shoulders. Most people are not floating in negative space. Therefore, other options include [but are not limited to]:

-A bed
-A pillow
-The floor
-An easychair
-A park bench
-The stomach of a loved one
-A television
-An oven
-Bob Marley’s grave
-The Matrix
-A loveseat
-The shoulder of a loved one
-Wacky Waving Armed Inflatable Balloon Man®

But, oh no, some asshole stole your bed! Who in the hell steals a bed?!? I wouldn’t even take one from the side of the road. That’s like stealing somebody’s toothbrush; it’s practical, but you’re better off getting your own. Either that, or he’s conveying a less literal meaning. Like you’re going all “4th Base” with some fugly human being and he/she ejaculates all over your bed and zonks out immediately. Of course, you’re going to need a better sleeping option. But when the floor is filthy and the couch is inhabited by a stranger dressed as Barney The Dinosaur, you might not have a place to lay your head and sleep. Instead of worrying about your toxic living situation, Bobby urges that being happy is the answer. Even though he doesn’t give us a single alternative or reason to be happy. Just be happy, you damned sheep!

The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don’t worry, be happy
Look at me, I’m happy

DontWorryBeThat’s some heavy shit you’re laying on me, Bobby! Homelessness is a huge problem, especially today. If your rent is late, then that means that you don’t have a means of getting the rent money. And it’s happened so many times that he’s gonna sue your ass. THAT IS WORRISOME, BOBBY! How about instead of shrugging it off and dancing, you go out and get a job or figure out what your next move is regarding where the hell you’re going to go and where are you going to put all of your shit? Other than injury and the death of a loved one, an eviction is one of the worst things that can happen to you! Especially in New York, you can have a full time job and still not be able to pay the rent. Many low-income neighborhoods are being gentrified by white kids that are dumb enough to pay a couple hundred more to be close to the 3 Trang. Nowadays, even some neighborhoods in Brooklyn are more expensive than some in Manhattan. Billionaires live there now. It’s like what Samuel L Jackson said, “Rent is too damn high!”. If you live anywhere in the boroughs, you’re at risk of being ousted by someone who’s willing to pay more. And when that happens, being happy isn’t going to pay the bills. You need to worry a little bit to get the fire under your ass in order to make changes in your life. When those changes are made, THEN you have permission to be happy. Being happy for the sake of being happy is dangerous.

Give you my phone number
When you worry, call me, I make you happy

What number? There’s no number listed! He wants us to call him, but how can we when we don’t know his number?!? THIS IS WORRISOME! [Also, it appears that he wants to have sex with all of us. STDs are worrisome.]

Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style
Ain’t got no gal to make you smile
But don’t worry, be happy

B-b-b-b-ut Bobby! Those are the only things in life that bring happiness! And it has to be all 3! I’ve got style and a little bit of cash, but I’m always worried about not having a gal to make me smile. If there’s no gal to make me smile, then what will? My cash and style? Fuck that! Give me the gal, Bobby! Unless, that is, he means that being happy would get me the gal. But then what would be the point of getting the gal? If I can just make myself happy, then I’d have no reason to have her, or at least, according to the song.

‘Cause when you worry, your face will frown
And that will bring everybody down

Right, I get it, nobody likes a downer. The idea of your energy changing the energy of those around you is not scientifically proven and is a bunch of hippy psychobabble. If you’re sad, flaunt that shit! It’s true emotion! He’s trying to turn us into robots!

Now there, is this song I wrote
I hope you learned it note for note
Like good little children
Don’t worry, be happy

And now that the song has been sung, we have all been fully programmed. We are now Bobby’s Children, incapable of sadness and willing to do whatever Master tells us to. As of right now, he just wants us to be happy. We shall continue to go along and let our life crumble around us with smiles on our faces, while we wait further instructions.

But those instructions never came. Bobby failed to produce another hit, leaving his minions confused and hungry, wondering what else there is to this thing called “life”.

The music video doesn’t do much explaining. It’s just Robin Williams dancing like an idiot while goldfish fall out of the sky or something. Pointless. We also learn that Bobby has an affinity towards being shirtless. Unsexy and pointless.

But this song lived on in popular culture. Shortly after the song was released, a hurricane crippled Jamaica. Naturally, this became the recovery theme song. Bobby was fine with that. So George Bush took a cue from them and used the song for his ’88 presidential campaign. This made Bobby worry. He protested the unauthorized use and publicly outspoke against him. But, just like the first line goes, anyone that sings it note for note can claim copyright. So George’s only response was “Don’t worry, be happy”.