1988 Countdown #51: Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

Rejoining our final Kevin Seal appearance, we find Seal promoting his hosting job on Big Bang ’89 later that night: “It’s time for me for me to go and start pushing my way through the huge crowds around Times Square. There’s only seven hours to go, you know–I better get started.” I don’t think his math works out–but it’s an amusing reminder that the MTV studios weren’t in Times Square back in the ’80s.

Seal tells us that Adam Curry will be finishing up the countdown, and segues into video #51: “We find Bobby McFerrin with a song that shot to number one and inspired millions of people to forget their troubles–and it managed to annoy at least an equal number.” Seal throws to a taped clip of McFerrin, who says that he himself gets cheered up by people greeting him by saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” if you have repressed the memory of it, was a catchy a cappella number with a Jamaican lilt and a simple message of positivity. The first time you heard it, the song was groovy and charming–McFerrin multitracked all the vocals, adding lots of pops, clicks, and human sound effects, like a more rhythmic version of the Seinfeld music. But when you heard the song everywhere, the sentiment seemed insipid rather than uplifting, and you wanted to hunt down McFerrin and find a way to make him deeply unhappy.

The video stars McFerrin, Robin Williams (at a point in his career when he still had some cred–his most recent starring role was Good Morning, Vietnam), and Bill Irwin (a clown then largely unknown to the general public, later brilliant as the father in Rachel Getting Married and as Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street).

We open on a close profile shot of McFerrin, whistling the melody. Then we cut to a “living room,” where we see Irwin (top hat, baggy pants), McFerrin (shirtless, sweater tied around neck), and Williams (a Middle Eastern tunic and hat). They snap their fingers; Williams does so with more brio than the others.

Back to McFerrin whistling; he raises his eyebrows, and then laughs, as if he’s just told himself a joke. He’s wearing a white tuxedo, and is barefoot. “Here’s a little song I wrote / You might want to sing it note for note,” he sings. Well, he’s one for two in the accuracy department.

Back to the living room set, which features a fireplace that appears to have a video log burning in the hearth. The trio duckwalk across the blue carpet. They look like they had a lot of fun making this video; they probably enjoyed themselves more than people did watching it.

New vignette: McFerrin in a dark suit with glasses and a pipe, stunned after reading a newspaper story about “FINANCIAL MELTDOWN: Dow Plummets 508 Points.” (Actually, he’s reading the back of the newspaper, so we can see that headline–maybe he’s really upset about something in the sports section.) He vibrates and lets the pipe fall out of his mouth. McFerrin’s a pretty good physical comedian–he holds his own next to Irwin and Williams.

Dark-suit McFerrin heads to a window so he can jump out. White-tux McFerrin appears in a little circle, as if he were going to do a sign-language interpretation for the deaf, but  just exhorts his suicidal alter ego, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Dark-suit McFerrin gets out on the ledge–and levitates out of his shoes and socks, saved by the power of happiness.

Sitting in the library chair, McFerrin snaps his head forward with a big grin. Did you know he has won ten Grammies? That seems excessive. Fun fact: this song was inspired by a saying from guru Meher Baba–the Indian mystic who Pete Townshend followed, and name-checked in “Baba O’Riley.”

Irwin, wearing a dressing gown and nightcap, goes into a “bedroom” (actually the “living room” set with a bed and a lot of clutter, from bowling pins to birdcages). Irwin picks up the phone, laughs into it, and throws it away. Objects fall from the ceiling: one of them is a goldfish in a bowl. Irwin dives over the bed, and through the magic of editing, appears to catch it.

This song evokes the self-help business book Who Moved My Cheese?, published ten years later. The book was a simplistic parable about the necessity of adapting to change in your environment, particularly your workplace. Not a terrible message–but when the book gets mass-distributed by management, it’s both insulting and a harbinger of really bad times to come on the job. Similarly, when George H. W. Bush used “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in his 1988 reelection campaign, the song felt less like a gentle encouragement, and more like a directive to the American people to be stupid.

The trio mug for the camera, dancing and grabbing each other’s legs. We are treated to a closeup on Williams, now wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He smiles into the camera, and waits expectantly, as if we’ll just have a Pavlovian reaction to his face. White-tux McFerrin reclines on top of a limousine, which has been parked in the “living room.” Williams struts onto the scene, wearing sunglasses and a checkered jacket. He opens up his wallet, pulls out some money, blows on the bill, and hands it to the limo driver, who accepts it and then rolls his window back up, ignoring Williams rapping on the glass. Williams pretends to hit his elbow, and somehow segues from wincing to Travolta-style disco posing. This video brings out the worst in Williams: when he was funny (which he was, once upon a time), it was because of his hyperactive verbal connections. Miming, he’s just “wacky.” At least he’s not trying for “heart-warming.”

More loose-limbed dancing and miscellaneous goofing around from the trio; Williams adds pelvic thrusts. I wonder how this video happened–was somebody at the record company inspired by Chevy Chase’s appearance in Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”? Is Irwin in it because he knew Williams from the Popeye movie? As we head for the fade, everyone takes turns strutting towards the camera; Irwin does a really good pratfall. It’s the first genuinely funny moment in the video.

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was a number-one jam; damn, if I say it, you can slap me right here.

posted 11 August 2010 in 1988 and tagged , , , . 1 comment

One Comment Thus Far on 1988 Countdown #51: Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    Seal throws to a taped clip of McFerrin, who says that he himself gets cheered up by people greeting him by saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

    This interview segment must’ve been taped minutes before the song reached saturation levels – in subsequent years McFerrin himself got powerfully sick of the song.

    I once watched an absolutely painful interview of McFerrin by the unctuous Charlie Rose, who spent most of the segment all but begging McFerrin to sing a line from “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” McFerrin gently, then more firmly refused Rose while shooting him looks like daggers – an expression that crossed I’m classically trained, and this is all they want from me with Don’t make me hurt you, you effete honkie.

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