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If you're happy and you know it clap your hands

If you're happy and you know it clap your handsOut of all my unhappy childhood memories, the one that continues to haunt me relates to the classroom sing-along. Although my grade one primary school teacher did her best to inspire joy in the classroom, by encouraging us to sing songs like “if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”, there were one or two gloomy types such as myself who refused to join in.

It’s not that I was an unhappy child. It’s just that institutionalised fun wasn’t my idea of a good time. It still isn’t. I don’t find “funny hat” days at work particularly fun, and I fail to the see the point in attending work-sponsored Karaoke nights. If I were to sing and clap on cue I’d do it, as Frank Sinatra famously put it, "My Way".

It was around the time the music video clip was emerging as a popular entertainment form in the '70s, when suburban misfits like myself encountered our counter-culture messiah in all his glory. The image of Sid Vicious dressed like an unruly high school debutant spitting out "My Way" with his trademark punk snarl, could not have been more out of step with the original French version that was first performed in 1967.

Sid’s act of cultural defiance convinced dissatisfied delinquents such as myself that the UK punk movement would deliver us from the banalities of middle-class sensibilities.

Punks like Vicious didn’t receive music awards. Why should they? They were nothing more than a bunch of sub-standard musicians behaving badly. The best thing that the mainstream music establishment could do was to ignore them. To do otherwise would have landed them a swag of music awards and public recognition to boot.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for today’s “happy-clappers”. The fact that there’s a Grammy Award dedicated to "Contemporary/Pop Gospel" music shows just how much influence the American Religious Right has on popular culture. Let’s face it, “contemporary gospel music” (as opposed to authentic gospel) is the unofficial soundtrack to ultraconservative America—just as the term “family values” has become code for conservative Christian values in Australia.

If you're happy and you know it clap your handsMany within the conservative Christian camp have come to accept music as an effective means of spreading the gospel. It’s a purist view that harks back to a time when Martin Luther recognised music as a valuable proselytising tool. As he put it, “I would gladly see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them. Why should the devil have all the good music?”

The way I see it, Australians prefer to do things their way. We’ve never been big on choreographed hoopla as seen on American Presidential campaigns, evangelical television shows, and American award ceremonies. I’d like to think that we prefer to acknowledge our achievements without the glitz and hype typical of such productions.

Many of the students I teach resent formal awards. And it’s not because they lack the talent or hunger to succeed. It’s just that the joy and satisfaction that comes from creative expression is killed off by the politicised nature of school-sponsored prizes. I recently encouraged a student to enter her short story in writing competition only to be told by her that she was not prepared to have her personal writing used as marketing tool by the school.

If you're happy and you know it clap your handsThere have been artists throughout history who have declined awards for fear of unsettling their delicate relationship with their muse. For such artists, awards are nothing more than a promotion tool used by the industry to shift merchandise. As Jean Paul Sartre put it after declining his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, “an artist must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution ...”

Given that the American Christian Right has been successful in forming alliances with governments, influencing public policy, and infiltrating popular culture, it could be said that they are comfortable doing business with political and artistic institutions for the explicit purpose of promoting their narrow brand of values.

Politics can corrupt, whereas genuine art enlightens. Artists, by virtue of their creative independence can, if they choose, talk "truth" to the State. We’ve seen this with the protest songs of the '60s, and with Australian hip hop artists that have come out of the working-class, underprivileged, and crime-ridden suburbs of Melbourne.

If you're happy and you know it clap your handsThe Christian musician and producer, T-Bone Burnett, once said that “you can sing about the Light, or you can sing about what you see because of the Light. I prefer the latter”. I too prefer songs that shed light on political corruption and injustice, to the songs that ring out of evangelical and Pentecostal mega-churches modelled on modern-day shopping centres.

These songs are nothing more than muzak for George W. Bush’s America—nursery rhymes that echo in the heads of inward-looking individuals, who march to the monotony of a single, puritanical drumbeat.

In Australia, there are as many music genres, styles and musical interpretations as there are political views and opinions. No group—whether political or musical—should force anyone to sing and clap to a single tune. It just wouldn’t make us happy.



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