What’s so special about you? The weighted words of the happy birthday song

Illustration of a woman being sung happy birthday
Aarthi Muthukumar/Staff

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For decades, the song “Happy Birthday to You,” which had originally been composed by Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill as a good morning welcome for elementary students, had been copyrighted by Warner Chappell Music, which collected millions of dollars in royalties from commercial enterprises that used the song. Five years ago, however, the cheerful, heartwarming song we all know and love was finally recognized for the public domain.

While much can be said about the legal ethics, or lack thereof, of copyrighting the song we all love, something else can be asked about the situation itself: What made the song so valuable? 

Could it have been the profitability of the song, or could it have been the constant promotion of the organization that owned it? Whatever reason you decide to justify this with, it’s important to keep an open mind about a potentially greater plan behind the copyrighting of the song we hear and sing annually. 

A close reading of the song’s lyrics, and acknowledging the weight behind a particular word, can prove instructive. The opening words “Happy Birthday” establish one thing and imply another. First, they establish the existence of a birthday (which is more than likely being celebrated at the moment); second, they imply that the birthday is, indeed, a happy occasion. This center of attention is directed toward a particular someone with the words “to you.” 

Having done so, the second line of the song strengthens this sense of praise as it mirrors the opening line. 

The third line, however, amplifies the sense of praise and draws greater attention to the celebrant by personalizing what had been sung in lines one and two. “Happy Birthday, dear (name)” dismisses any generalization of “you” and reminds the celebrant that the day (and celebration) is strictly about them. 

And for good measure, the fourth line closes out the celebration song with a reaffirmation that the birthday is both a happy one and one celebrating the relevant “you.”

But is there more to the happy birthday song than this? With the song being so based on directing any and all attention to a single individual, could it add more than just a boost of ego? It seems as if the song promotes a self-centered, individualistic take on someone’s role in the world. Imagine how selfish people would become if they had songs of praise and celebration directed at them daily. I suppose it’s a good thing birthdays only come once a year for each of us. If you’re reading this on your birthday, remember to stay grounded, humble and selfless. And for good measure, happy birthday to you. 

Contact Bryan Hernandez Benitez at [email protected].