The Kibitzer


Happy Birthday, Buzzkill

By Billy Fried
By Billy Fried

That tired and fatuous “Happy Birthday” song is about to get its comeuppance.

For years I have cringed in restaurants when staff assemble at a nearby table and give a thoroughly depressing rendition of an already fossilized ditty. Nothing can hijack a lively and elegant dining experience more than some pasty, nasally busboy teasing out the last verse of what sounds like a funeral dirge: “Happpppy Birrrrrthday Dear What’s-Your-Name, Happy Birthday to you.”

Okay I’ll admit the only version that ever had pizazz was Marilyn Monroe’s very public, very seductive crooning for JFK, but I suppose it’s because of the lurid subtext.

The song’s origin dates to 1893, and it sure sounds like it. Patty Smith Hill (no not that Patty Smith) and her husband wrote it for her kindergarten students. No surprise there. What is shocking is that this ditty holds the Guinness World Record for the most widely sung song in the English language. Plenty of things have gone to the wayside since then, like a spoonful of cod liver oil as a daily remedy, cocaine in coca cola, the eight-track cassette, and the AMC Gremlin car.

Isn’t there a more imaginative, spirited way of marking the milestone than just repeating it over and over? No context, no narrative, just the Joe Friday facts. And yet this song has become the de-facto birthday song the world over. It makes the melodic Italian language sound mundane. “Tanti Auguri a te, Tanti Augurri a te…” And those poor French have to drag out just two words to complete the verse; “Joyeaux Anniversaire.” Try that at home. But not at my Paris bistro, please!

How a company like Warner Music Group can profit from the commercial use of this pabulum is even more offensive. Like the Hugh Grant slacker character in “About a Boy,” they have been feasting off the royalties of this song since 1988, even strong-arming the Girl Scouts at one time over use around the campfire. I might be sympathetic if this was a symphonic score by Charles Ives or Philip Glass. But it’s “Happy Birthday,” for heaven’s sake.

Now a company that is making a documentary about the song is playing Robin Hood and challenging the original, 1935 copyright, arguing that the tune drifted into the public domain as early as the 1920’s. If they prevail, Warners could be on the hook for millions of dollars in licensing fees they’ve collected since 1988. Well, Happy Birthday to you, Warners!

Can we not stick it to corporate America even more by adapting a more contemporary, peppy tune by real geniuses like the Beatles or Stevie Wonder? Oh yeah, they’ve both written excellent birthday songs. Whoever it is, the best birthday gift we can all hope for is the permanent retiring of this turgid tune!

In local news, I am excited to see we finally have our first roundabout at the five-way confluence of Los Robles, El Camino Del Mar, and Catalina. Okay, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing and I am told we will only add landscaping if it is approved permanently and that it will take two years, but at least we got one. And when and if we landscape it this would be the perfect size for a pocket park with seating that will bring the neighborhood together in a way they have done it with resounding success in Portland.

Now we can test our ability to assimilate a new congestion-relieving tool, one that has been installed with great success in traffic-clogged cities around the globe. This is a roundabout on training wheels as it is certainly not a traffic-addled intersection. But many residents protested over the challenge of “learning something new,” something “only those Europeans are comfortable with.” So the city elected to test one on the most benign intersection they could find.

Well, fasten your chinstraps, pull up your big boy pants, and take a couple laps around the circle. Don’t worry, you can get off any time. And once you’ve mastered it, and realize it overcomes the inertia of intersections and traffic lights, perhaps we can add them to the intersections that need them most: Thalia and Glenneyre, Laguna Canyon Road and Forest Avenue, Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads, and Calliope and Glenneyre streets. I’m sure we can think of more. This would be one of the most dramatic and inexpensive improvements we could make to the traffic flow in our town.


Billy Fried its on the boards of Transition Laguna and the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. He hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights on KX93.5, and can be reached at [email protected].


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