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What Makes Us "Happy?"

By Adam Echelman

“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth,” Pharrell Williams sings, dancing down a corridor in an LAX airport terminal. Whether his song lyrics mean something to you or not, the November music video to his hit single “Happy” has ignited an international craze. Almost 150 countries and countless more cities are clapping along, with new videos being added to YouTube every day. Ostensibly, these videos are about one thing: being “Happy.” But the Internet is a protean creature, and with each new video, Williams’ words acquire new meaning. Just last month, seven Iranians were arrested for producing their own “Happy” interpretation, transforming these videos into a political statement. Iran, however, is not unique. Across the developing world, these YouTube videos have become a symbol of the West and the values it imposes.

SPEAKING OUT

For American audiences on YouTube, these videos provide a more intimate look into foreign cities and countries. Such “Happy” videos undermine stereotypical images of war and famine in regions like the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of militant Gaza rebels or malnourished children in Namibia, YouTube viewers see young people in trendy clothes, clapping along to the music like any other New Yorker.

“With our video we also wanted to help promote a different image of the African continent than the one that is usually delivered in international media. Africa is not just a continent of hunger, corruption and disease, as many people in the West tend to think, but rather a continent of beautiful, happy, and self-confident people,” wrote Carina Schmid, manager of the Global Experience, which recently produced a “Happy” in Namibia video.

Others use Pharrell Williams’ hit to address social and political issues within their own countries. In Britain, the anonymous Islam-focused organization Honesty Policy gathered to produce “Happy British Muslims.” Its video has a simple mission: “To unite the world through happiness.” Yet the organization did not choose British Muslims arbitrarily. The demographic of practicing Muslims in the UK has grown dramatically in recent years, causing an increase in hate crimes and xenophobia. The video humanizes the British Muslims, depicting them dancing along just like those in the London version of “Happy.” And, with over 1.7 millions views on YouTube, it seems the happy British Muslims have made their point. 

 

Discussing the “Happy” in Yemen video he recently produced, Yemeni photographer and director Ameen Alghabri noted that his video was not “aimed at the West to combat a stereotype codified by the media about traditional Islam. It was a message for the masses, to Yemenis, a message of peace over fundamentalism, equality over sexism, unity over religious segregation, and justice over oppression.” It was a “display of defiance,” he stated in an interview. Indeed, what seems like mindless pop has quickly become a vehicle to discuss greater issues of modernization and human rights.

This story is especially relevant in Iran. Speaking to IranWire, one of the producers of the video stated, “We just want a chance to raise our voice, and say that Iran is a better place [than the media perceives], that despite all of the pressures they face, Iranian young people are happy.” By arresting the dancers and director of its “Happy” video, Iran makes a clear statement: the Iranian people are not allowed to be happy, at least not by Williams’ standards. Six Iranians have since been released from jail, but their arrest remains a poignant example of the country’s oppressive regime. Rather than debunking stereotypes, the Iranian government’s response has only reinforced Western notions about Islam and Sharia law.

WESTOXICATION

While the word “happy” is universal, Pharrell Williams’ eponymous song is not. His hit music video celebrates a very specific kind of “Happy”—one that is characterized by bubbly harmonies, American-brand t-shirts, and hip-hop style dance. “Happy” in Saudi Arabia looks very different from “Happy” in Mongolia, but both videos share a striking similarity: jeans and shopping malls. A New York Times blogger synthesized the issue of the “Happy We are From Tehran” video with the title, “Young Iranians Arrested for Being Too ‘Happy in Tehran.’” In reality, these Iranians were arrested for being too Western—not too happy. The women chose not to wear hijabs and danced with men, two Western freedoms that do not exist in Iran. 

The Yemeni “Happy” video faced a similar backlash. “It posed questions confronting the notion of breaking a traditional society’s norm with modernization. The taboo of women dancing in the street was challenged. With growing anti-American sentiments in Yemen, what seemed to aggravate even the most mild of Islamists was not just Yemeni women dancing, but dancing to an American song,” wrote Alghabri. Some of these Western concepts seem a given to Americans and international groups alike—who will dispute the importance of freedom of expression?—but in other cases, the culture of “Happy” is more questionable. When jeans and Auto-Tune overtake age-old traditions, it is harder to defend “Happy.”

At the end of the day, the “Happy” YouTube craze is merely another example of increasing Westernization—or “Westoxication” to some. Most “Happy” videos come from the West and carry little social and political relevance; they are simply a feel-good celebration of diversity and national pride. But with worldwide appeal, Williams’ hit has struck a chord in developing nations, highlighting the greatest advantages and the toughest drawbacks of globalization. The Internet increases exposure to foreign cultures and erodes stereotypes. Indeed, the world is dancing together, but at a potentially serious cost. Everyone is dancing to the same song, celebrating and conforming to the same Western values.

Sample YouTube Videos from More Countries:

1. Iran: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYnLRf-SNxY

2. Gaza: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4gu27QVzOc#t=17

3. Namibia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQJseDVh2pQ

4. Saudi Arabia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKi4iAl_qb0

*****

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Adam Echelman is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

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