The arrest and subsequent release of the young Iranians who made their very own “Happy” video contrasts starkly with the recent (and not very happy) remarks from Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. The Ayatollah (not of rock ‘n’ rolla) has proclaimed an “endless” jihad against the West — and the United States in particular.
After some seemingly good-natured Iranians filmed a playful dance video to Pharrell William’s uber-popular song, “Happy,” they were jailed by the state. Their dance moves and lip-syncing apparently broke Iranian law by “promoting” Western values. The women landed in hot water as well because they performed without the legally mandated hijab veils. Once the formally happy youngsters apologized remorsefully on national television, most of these menacing dancers were released from prison — although other “Happy”-inspired videos have popped up all over Iran, and the Middle East and North Africa in general. Apparently the youth weren’t cowered in the manner the authorities were initially hoping for.
On the other end of the sociopolitical spectrum, Khamenei has stated (not in relation to the video) that jihad will continue until the United States is destroyed or severely weakened. While that might be a “happy” thought for many true believers in certain parts of the world, it’s not a happy way to go about living a human life.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has somehow managed to find the middle ground in Iran’s culture and rhetoric wars. He tweeted — even though Twitter is officially blocked in Iran (a happy irony?) — that “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” Talk about mixed signals handed down from the powers that be.
At the end of the day, “Happy” is just a fun, lighthearted song that has a simple message. It doesn’t need deep, philosophically brooding or heavy-handed analytical exploration. And that’s all right. Just like someone ironically singing an acoustic version of a Britney Spears song in a hipster café, pop culture can be transformed into whatever people need it to be. In the case of “Happy,” that could be an Olympic sports team just having some fun. In Iran, it has turned into an expression of power and defiance (despite the official apologies) and the desire to live under slightly less oppressive rules.
True believers, whether their beliefs come from political doctrine or religious dogma, tend to be hard to sway in their opinion. The American Christians who head over to Haifa, Israel, and await Armageddon whenever conflict heats up or the folks in Pakistan and Syria willing to blow themselves up for a cause, along with people who subscribe to the “religion” of rabid nationalism in parts of Russia, China and elsewhere, will probably never be truly happy. They’re waiting for something that will be someday — and not content to find some non-judgmental or non-murderous happiness in the here and now.
Hey, I’ve just changed my mind. “Happy” really is a deep song.
Sadly, violent struggle, jihad and ethnic conflict will be with us for some time to come. Nevertheless, the interconnected optimism of youth culture and world culture overall — even if some of it originates from superficial pop media — has given me heart. Transformative struggle doesn’t always have to be about killing other human beings. Sometimes it can simply be about — or at least start with — a catchy song.
Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.