When my friend Josh turned 35 last week, a coworker organized a small surprise party at the end of the day. We all gathered in one of the offices, sent Josh an email about a “meeting,” and yelled “surprise!” as he came in. We handed him a Great Lakes IPA, and it was all thoughtful and fun.
That is, until a coworker, Lauren, felt compelled to say those five dreaded words: “Should we sing happy birthday?”
The group froze. The idea floated uncomfortably in the ether, like public flatulence that no one wanted to acknowledge. After all, nobody wanted to be the curmudgeon who said, “No, let’s not sing Josh the ‘Happy Birthday’ song.” And so, before anyone had a chance to be the voice of reason, Lauren buckled under the growing pressure of her own suggestion and began piping out the first few words: “Happy birthday to you….”
At that point, leaving Lauren on her own would have been a cardinal insult to both her and Josh. Realizing no one else wanted to recite “Happy Birthday,” she would have been forced to either trail off after one verse (bad) or sing the entire thing solo (worse).
So, like the many European nations drawn into World War I because of a single person’s poor decision and a cascading set of alliances, our group was unwittingly dragged into singing “Happy Birthday.”
This scene wasn’t unique. It plays out every day in offices, homes, restaurants, and parties across the country. In fact, many experts believe that “Happy Birthday to You” is the best-known and most-frequently sung song in the world.
THE TUNE COMES FROM an 1893 song called “Good Morning to All” that was composed by two Kentucky sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, for kindergarteners to sing. During the next two decades, someone took this tune and overlaid it with new birthday-themed lyrics. (No one knows exactly who wrote the iconic “Happy Birthday” words, but there isn’t much evidence that it was the Hills.) A massive hit was soon born, and in a quintessentially American tradition, the chase was on to turn an innocent family-oriented phenomenon into profit.
In 1934, a third Hill sister, Jessica, sued Irving Berlin for unauthorized use of the birthday standard in a Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer. Though the case was later dismissed, Jessica didn’t come up empty-handed. The next year, working in conjunction with a music publisher known as the Clayton F. Summy Company, she decided to copyright “Happy Birthday to You,” including both music and lyrics. Jessica and the company collected royalties for years until 1988, when Warner/Chappell Music bought out Clayton F. Summy, including all its copyright holdings, for $25 million.
“Happy Birthday” generates an estimated $2 million each year in licensing fees for Warner/Chappell, largely from television and movie producers, and it’s not currently set to lose copyright protection until 2030.
But according to a seminal 2010 paper by George Washington University Professor Robert Brauneis, there is significant doubt over whether the Hill sisters ever had a rightful claim to copyright ”Happy Birthday,” in part because authorship of the lyrics is murky. Brauneis’ work is the basis of an ongoing lawsuit, filed in 2013, challenging the current copyright’s validity.
This fight is not merely academic. “Happy Birthday” generates an estimated $2 million each year in licensing fees for Warner/Chappell, largely from television and movie producers, and it’s not currently set to lose copyright protection until 2030. Avoiding these fees is why restaurant chains like Red Robin and Joe’s Crab Shack serenade customers with their own unique birthday songs.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY” OWES ITS success to a perfect storm of factors that emerged just before the song was written. As Elizabeth Pleck, a history professor at the University of Illinois, notes, birthday parties only became commonplace in the mid-19th century. Birthday cakes arose in the 1840s, and parties among similarly-aged children didn’t become a trend until a few decades later. Soon thereafter, fueled by economic growth in the first half of the 20th century and a more child-oriented view of adolescence, birthday parties became a virtual right among youngsters. As a result, Brauneis writes, “the prerequisites for the development of a standard birthday song may not have been in place until shortly before ‘Happy Birthday to You’ started to become popular.”
According to Pleck, the birthday party, itself, is constantly evolving. What began as large formal affairs for parents slowly morphed into parties where children ran the show. Over time, society successfully shed the stuffy, awkward elements of birthday parties, making them more enjoyable for everyone involved.
It is for this reason that I propose the following: Let’s stop singing “Happy Birthday.”
Most researchers agree that we started singing the song for one reason: the kids. Hearing “Happy Birthday,” especially when it’s in honor of their own special day, is still novel for children. Plus, it’s typically sung while a cake and candles are being brought into the room. So for kids there’s something to hold their gaze while the song is going on—and there’s even some evidence that singing that song actually makes the cake taste better.
Somewhere along the way, though, “Happy Birthday” became something we sang to adults, too. The result, often, is similar to what happened in our office the other day: a cake-less charade where both singers and birthday celebrant feign enjoyment. After all, few people like singing “Happy Birthday” and even fewer like having it sung to them. Whereas children sing with vigor and gusto, as adults they croon with about as much excitement as watching a replay of the 1995 PGA Championship.
And though the thought behind singing “Happy Birthday” is mildly flattering for someone celebrating his 35th birthday, after about five seconds, gratitude descends into pure, unfiltered awkwardness. What are you supposed to do for the next 25 excruciating seconds? Sing along? Gaze at the faces of your off-key carolers with a mix of flattery and sympathy? There are few good options for someone sitting through the indignity of being publicly serenaded.
The problem here is that, as a society, we haven’t agreed on a cut-off age past which we’re no longer expected to sing each other “Happy Birthday.” My suggestion: Once a child turns 14, no more singing. It’s the age when most kids are entering high school and at the peak of both puberty and social awkwardness. Most, too, are eager to start exerting independence from their parents. Making turning 14 a new rite of passage—the age at which we cease to sing “Happy Birthday” and instead treat people like regular adults who prefer dignity to infantilization—would improve birthdays for everyone.
So, from here on out, when you’re celebrating the birthdays of your friends, try not singing “Happy Birthday.” I bet it’s a present they’ve never been given, but one they’ve always wanted.