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My 15 (+1) Favorite Songs of 2009 — 15. Michael Jackson, “Happy” (1973).

15. Michael Jackson, “Happy” (1973)
– From the 1973 album Music and Me.

I’ve never been a big Michael Jackson fan, really. (I did tell my students once that “dance music was all about Side One of Off the Wall”, and was met with laughter — not because it was an album that came out at least a decade before they were born, but because I had said “Side One”.) Like many people, I had pretty much checked out by 1987; my last memory of participating in something communally MJ-related was John Landis’ video for the forgettable anthem “Black or White” back in 1991. The next was at a crowded sports bar at lunchtime in July of 2009. I ate a pulled pork sandwich while his funeral played on the TV with the sound turned off.

But I felt a little twinge of sadness as well, if only because I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Michael Jackson. He was always on television when I was growing up, even on the Marcos regime-controlled TV stations during martial law in the Philippines, and of course there was no escaping “Beat It” or the inimitable “Billie Jean” (still an amazing track however you slice it). And perhaps one of my earliest musical memories ever – other than Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” on Sesame Street — was “Happy” on the AM radio, though it was only in 2009 that I heard it again and remembered it even existed.

And what a song indeed – here’s young Michael in full Diana Ross mode, his girlish tenor positively angelic in its purity. Credited to Smokey Robinson (!) and Michel Legrand (!!), its subtitle is “Love Theme from Lady Sings the Blues”, but it isn’t featured in Sidney J. Furie’s film or its soundtrack. “Happy” is a ballad about “love and happiness”, he says in the out-of-sync YouTube video above, but it barely conceals the song’s profound melancholy. The first two lines of “Happy” begin with:

Sadness had been
Close as my next of kin

And you think to yourself, Good lord – especially now that we know how he suffered as a child — he was singing this was when he was all of fifteen years old? Lyrically, it’s a bit inscrutable; it sounds like he’s singing about a dog, and having “Happy” and “Sadness” personified as characters in the song is simply clumsy writing.

But when the song (and Michael) suddenly turns an oddly philosophical turn, it’s a little more than just teenage melodrama. There seems – at least from my perspective, writing from 2009 — to be an unbearable emotional weight in his plaintive and beautiful singing, a burden that even in his mere adolescence seemed all too real for this young boy:

Where have I been?
What lifetime was I in?
Suspended between time and space
Lonely until
Happy came smiling up at me

But enough of this cheap psychoanalysis, and on to the other reason I loved this song this year. My younger brother Happy supposedly received his nickname because as a child I kept saying the “happy” word over and over while touching my mother’s pregnant belly. After hearing this song again, I wanted to think my brother was named after the Michael Jackson song, all over the airwaves when he was a baby. But I subsequently did the math, and it proved impossible (it was released after Happy was born) – but that’s how I like to remember my brother (“My life began when Happy smiled”), and it’s how I like to remember Michael Jackson.

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The rest of the list so far:

16. Wonder Girls, “Nobody”

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