A brilliant, starlight sky. A loving wife. A new car. Do any of those summarise what happiness means to you? Or do you look inwardly? And how secure, and obtainable, is happiness? Philosophers, self-styled self-help gurus and psychologists have, as Derren Brown's book Happy makes clear, come up with different answers to at least some of these questions over the years. Yet few songs, even amongst the uptempo ones, are truly joyous, blissful, happy. That said, many others give us a view of happiness that isn't exactly straight out the creative department in the TV show Mad Men. In fact, some songs about the subject are anything but happy. Step aboard for a rocky ride of euphoria, anxiety and analysis, amongst many other things. If there's one thing most that study happiness can agree on, it's that experiencing 'good times', or seeking to, can be looked at from many different angles. Here's a sweeping panorama of the grand, anything-but-shallow subject, even if some of the songs about it aren't the most profound ever written:
1. 'I Feel Fine' - The Beatles
Although it has been said that this George Harrison composition about the joy of having someone love him is the first, at least among number one singles, to feature guitar feedback, it is notable for a far more obvious reason: the amount of pure joy it inspires. That's not to mention excellent guitar work, some of the best among The Beatles' canon. Slices of Sixties euphoria don't get much better than this. While they would later have some rather strange notions about happiness (Lennon described it lyrically as being "...A Warm Gun") and other hits related to such a feeling (like 'Hey Jude') , this song is arguably as straight-forward as Beatles lyrics get while retaining such immense greatness.
2. 'Happy Is A Yuppie Word' - Switchfoot
In stark contrast to the previous song, this one starts with the phrase "Everything dies". Apparently inspired by the 'speculative wisdom' of Ecclesiastes and perhaps other pessimistic literature, Switchfoot still manage to inspire with their view of happiness with such lines as "Blessed is the man who's lost it all", which recalls Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, while remaining grounded in a soberly realistic mindset. The same singer Jon Foreman who reminds us that "Nothing is sound" is also so daring in his positivity as to claim "Nothing in the world can fail me now". It might not be the greatest song by Switchfoot, but it is far from one-dimension in its views of happiness.
3. 'Dusty' - Soundgarden
On this arguably cheerful, out-of-character 1996 song by the usually gloomy Seattle band Soundgarden, the apparently joyful lyrics are countered by quite-heavy backing as well as a bluesy feel on the guitars and indulgence in typically abnormal timings, much of which suggests an undercurrent of comedowns, chaos, confusion and similar unhappy happenings. In this way one finds similarities with AllMusic's take on Ice Cube's 'It Was A Good Day', a hip-hop track which they said showed "a quiet sense of violent anxiety", thought perhaps the word "quiet" does not apply to 'Dusty' so much. The lyric about things "turning back around" in this Soundgarden classic shows that happiness can be based on a brighter future as well as good times simply found in the here-and-now, something also shown in the yearning 'Boot Camp' from the same album, Down On The Upside.
4. 'High' - James Blunt
An early single from singer-songwriter and ex-military serviceman James Blunt, 'High' is about being at the top of the emotional spectrum, but also confronts worries about the future, while the line "Sometimes it's hard to believe you believe me" hints that perhaps he feels his happiness is undeserved or an event that could easily have not happened. Such a mixture of moods explicit or implied is interesting: even a few minutes' worth of songwriting here does not show a kind of bliss unrestrained or detached from everything else, even if it is truly blissful at times. The opening phrase about the "dawn" links Blunt's emotional heights to a common cause of such feeling, beauty, which is also the subject of his hit, "You're Beautiful" that's also present on the Back To Bedlam album.
5. 'From Can To Can't' - Corey Taylor, Grohl, Nielsen, Reeder
Featuring Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters star Dave Grohl on both the opening guitar and drums, this track from the Sound City Players' album also features Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick (guitar) and Kyuss' Scott Reeder (bass) backing Stone Sour and Slipknot vocalist Corey Taylor on singing duties. "All these people - tragic little people - they're smiling and they don't know what for" sings Taylor in one of the clearest denouncements of happiness on an album as popular as this, right after a line about "Burning my cathedrals [a great source of happiness for some] 'cause I don't pray anymore". Feel good hit? Maybe not. Leave that to Grohl's co-collaborators Queens Of The Stone Age ...
6. 'Palo Alto' - Radiohead
One of the few feel-good tracks in the Radiohead catalogue if read at face value, one might suggest given the pessimism of other works by Thom Yorke and company such as 'Planet Telex' and 'Let Down', that such good cheer is a mere veneer behind which they criticise or sneer at the corporate West and Silicon Valley. Appropriately forward looking, in terms of its effects, for a song about "the city of the future", it is also arguably overly simple. However, it still sounds great thanks to the majesty of Radiohead's array of skills, one that makes even songs that are relatively poor compared to, say, 'Karma Police' an enjoyable trip out. While this may be a throwaway by their usual standards, in another band's hands it could be considered their best work. This shows how out-of-place happier material can seem with certain bands, and also its hit-making potentially if used by certain other acts on the sunnier sides of the spectrum.
7. 'Just Looking' - Stereophonics
One of the sadder songs about happiness, this one is clearly about consumerism, a common source of happiness, or at least a quick attempt at it, in the modern capitalist world. More accurately, it's about "not buying" but "just looking" because it "keeps me smiling". Full of self-doubt ("There's things I think I want / Do I want the dreams: the ones we're forced to see?") and using individual anxieties to critique a much larger system, such analysis, shot through with emotion and complete with a pop/rock chorus, reinforces the claim that Kelly Jones and his fellow Stereophonics are a band for the working class, especially those that like to rock out.
8. 'Family Portrait' - Pink
A common theme in music is how things are not as they might seem, and such is the main trope of 'Family Portrait' in which a family are said to "look pretty happy" but surrounding verses give the impression that reality is anything but picture-perfect. Although arguably too direct in its moralizing, the song was nonetheless a hit, sitting (un)comfortably alongside the likes of 'Just Like A Pill'. While dysfunctional, unhappy families are appeared in other tracks, few have been this good at balancing commercial value with seemingly unusual (in the context of hit records) but, in actuality, bluntly realistic imagery.