A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Singing of Happy Birthday from Becoming More of a Burden on Parents, Family Members, Friends, and the World At Large

It happened again on Sunday. There I was, enjoying a delicious summer barbecue at a neighbor’s house. The food was plentiful, the weather balmy, so much so that I forgot the occasion for our being there–an 8 year-old’s birthday party. The kids had a blast, we had some drinks, and all was merry, until…until it came time to sing “Happy Birthday.”

My hatred of this song sneaks up on me. I forget how insufferable it can be, because I am so excited for the cake–those who know me well, know I am obsessed with all things cake. When did singing “Happy Birthday” become so annoying? It is either so drawn out that it may as well be a funeral march, or it is hijacked by screaming kids who think it’s a contest to see who can shout it the loudest. Adults sing it with such monotonous dread that it takes longer to finish than it does to bake the damn cake; kids just holler it at you.

The other night, I was watching Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. The movie begins with Gere’s character’s birthday. A successful billionaire, his cake is kingly–larger than our master bedroom. But when it is wheeled out by his butler–complete with sixty candles (!), his family simply says “Happy Birthday Dad/Honey/Grandpa.” Then, he makes a little speech. I loved this scene. I want to try it at my upcoming birthday. Let’s just say “Happy Birthday” everyone–I don’t even have to make a speech. Hell, I don’t even need a butler to serve it to me. Just a simple spoken gesture of well wishing and then– let’s eat!

IMG_0055I realized how bitter I was about this song when my younger son turned five. There we were, birthday boy, brother, parents and grandparents, singing our hearts out. Yet, it took us so damn long to finish the second line that Hayden simply blew out IMG_0057the candles. Just like that, the song was over. We stopped, somewhat dumbfounded. Then, I burst out laughing and said, “Well, okay, let’s cut the cake.” He knew! A five-year-old knew that all of this pomp made for too much circumstance. It was as if he was saying “While we’re young, people. While we’re young.”

I don’t enjoy being such a party pooper. In fact, I like birthdays. I like celebrating the lives of the people I care about. But the devolvement of this tradition irks me. Even as a child, I remember being annoyed when someone introduced the trend of adding “How old are you? How old are you?” to the end of the song. Or the crueler, but similarly inane, “You act like a monkey, and you look like one, too.” I think that one bugged me because I DO look like a monkey. Anyhow, every year, I share my observations about our society’s annoying birthday renditions with my students– a captive audience (emphasis on the word captive). I tell them to fight the injustices that have been done to this song, and encourage the group to avoid dragging it out. In addition, I tell them that they have the power to start the singing and set the pace. Once candles are lit, and lights are dimmed, no one wants to actually begin. Thus, I tell them to take control. In a loud, throaty voice, just utter the sound “HAP-” and the rest of the group will chime in with “BE-Birthday to you…” It never fails. Whenever one says that first syllable, the rest join in on the second syllable. Try it at your next party, and see for yourself. You may even want to just sing that one noise and then watch as the rest of the gang finishes the entire number. It is highly entertaining to watch the faces of your friends and family sing, while their eyes are transfixed on the flickering candles.

Growing up, we were a traditional “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear So-and-so, happy birthday to you” sort of family. We sang it faster than any song we knew–be it a TV theme song (“The Brady Bunch, The Brady Bunch”) or commercial jingle (“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz; Oh, what a relief it is”) . We’d finish in less than fifteen seconds. I guess with seven kids, everyone was preoccupied with diving into the cake.  As an adult, particularly as a dad, I have come to realize that there are the traditional singers of “Happy Birthday” and the obnoxious upstarts who have to add the “Cha Cha Cha’s”. What. The. Hell. I had never encountered this until I had kids of my own. To make matters worse, there are those who take over the song (my sons’ included), who think it’s funny to add all manner of absurd imagery to the end–in addition to all of the Cha, Cha, Cha’s. Allow me to enlighten those of you who are lucky enough to have been spared such a lengthy performance:

. . . “Happy birthday dear So-and-so, happy birthday to you.” Note: The song should end here. But, Nooo. It then continues with:

“Cha, Cha, Cha. Ohh, la, la. Hi-Ya. Scooby-doo, we love you. Winnie the Pooh, We love you, too.”

Enough! E-nough I say. Let’s take back Happy Birthday. Let’s make it a quick, sentimental rendition. Let’s stop letting people yell it at the top of their lungs. Let’s stop adding nonsensical lyrics to a simple musical gesture.

Therefore, I propose that anyone who feels the need to ruin the Happy Birthday song be “accidentally” burned with the hot wax from the candles, which are now mere wick-nubs because a few big mouths had to take so freakin’ long to wish someone well, that the candles melted into the cake. It will only take a few “accidents” for your guests to get the hint. And besides, the pain will subside that much quicker with the taste of all that sugary icing in the victims’ mouths–but the scars will serve as a reminder for all future celebrations.

If this issue does not make you feel as sadistic as it does me, could you at least give the offenders a considerably smaller piece of cake? Thanks!

Warning: This diatribe is not meant for toddlers or senior citizens.

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14 comments

  1. I hadn’t thought of it until I read your post, but in my family, we don’t even sing the words; it’s the initials put to song H-B-T-Y, HBTY, and so on. Maybe that kept the annoyance to a minimum. I’m by far more annoyed when someone ruins my slice of cake with a dollop of ice cream. I like ice cream, but it has a time and a place.

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  2. As soon as I saw the title of this post, I thought I know what drives me crazy about the singing of this stupid song. And you hit it out of the park. The funeral dirge quality of how we sing it. Absolutely drives me crazy. Well done.

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  3. Haha! I agree. That monotonous, drawn-out, droning is nauseating.

    I laughed at your description of the voices launching off after someone in the group sings the first syllable.

    Also, I can not stand having happy birthday sung to me over the phone. Does it happen to you? You barely manage to utter ‘hello’ into the phone, and a voice launches straight into ‘happy birthday’. Aargh! At least in that case it gets sung fast- they just want to get it over with!

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  4. I have a friend who sings the “Russian Gulag” version in a minor tone, extra slow: “Happy Birthday…Oh, Happy Birthday…war, hate and despair…people dying everywhere…oh happy birthday.” Kind of pays homage to and simultaneously ridicules the dirgelike way most people sing HB. You captured my sentiments with this one! Well done.

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  5. I totally agree with your post. The singing of “Happy Birthday” always reminds me of an awkward highs school dance. Who will start singing first because none of us want to inadvertently go solo if no one else joins in! Am I singing too loud? What if I have a seniors’ moment and forget the words or the birthday honouree’s name under pressure? Do we say “Susan”, “Sue”, “Suzette”, “Suzanne”? What does she normally go by? Do we use the formal version of the name or the cutesy nickname on such an occasion? Will the candles last until the song is done? Will the anxious birthday girl/boy last? There is far too much pressure on such a momentous occasion! I agree that a simple “Happy Birthday” greeting would be sufficient and a welcome trend setter.

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