Written By Lisa Han
According to the 1988 Guinness Book of World Records, “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognizable song in the English language. It’s the kind of song that works in any context, whether it’s belted out of tune from the lungs of 6-year-olds, or in harmony from a group of talented singers. Most people born in this century can probably remember either participating in that drawn out “haaaaap—“ as everyone attempts to sync up, or hiding in your hands out of fear and discomfort when you know the plot is on.
Well you can thank Patty and Mildred J. Hill for all of your embarrassing childhood memories; the duo penned the jingle all the way back in 1893. Since then, the three-part ritual of singing the song, making a wish, then eating the cake has been hammered so deeply into our cultural consciousness that few can remember a time when the Happy Birthday Song did not exist, much less trace it back to its origins. But if you’re wondering why those memories don’t often extend outside of people’s homes, it’s probably because it is illegal to sing it most other places. “Happy Birthday” was copyrighted by music industry big wigs years ago. According to a 2007 article in Snopes, the publishing rights to “Happy Birthday” currently belong to Summy-Birchard Music, part of AOL Time Warner, which receives about $2 million annually in royalties for the song.
Fortunately, making your loved ones uncomfortable in the public sphere is still possible. While many restaurants have chosen not to pay the price for “Happy Birthday to You”, a robust culture of singing waiters and innovative versions of the song have cropped up in diners and chains everywhere. Some restaurants have even chosen to adopt their own tune just for the fun of it, such as Friendly’s, which started singing its own version in 2000. Of course, not every song about birthdays can stack up to the original, but frankly, these eateries have exhibited more potential for G-rated success than the mainstream music palate that tends to celebrate such tracks as “Birthday Sex” by Jeremiah and “Birthday Cake” by Rihanna. BTR did some research within restaurants around town to find out what it takes to make a great original birthday song.
1. A birthday song should appeal to all ages
If all iconic jingles were chosen solely by cultural trends, the new happy birthday jam would be 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”. Personally, I think that song is super great (party like it’s your birthday, anyone?) But it is admittedly difficult to imagine crooning it to a 7-year-old before they blow out the candle, no matter what generation you’re coming from. Restaurants know this, which is why many of them choose to emphasize similar themes: food, parties, and on occasion, a lesson for the birthday kid.
Friendly’s properly exhibits the latter in their lyrics to the Army “Cadence” tune, taking into account a long tradition of implicit punishment established in classic children’s songs like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. Well, it’s either that, or a strangely vengeful way of reminding patrons of the hard work done in the service industry: “If you’re good, you’ll get your wishes/if you’re not, you’ll do our dishes.” Maybe it’s both!
2. A birthday song should be short and sweet
The original birthday song has only one, pithy phrase: “Happy birthday to you.” Any embellishments beyond this (“and many more from channel 4 and Scooby-doo on channel 2…”) are a personal choice. Naturally, the new birthday song should also be, as Friendly’s advertises, “not too long and not too short.”
When it comes to length, Chili’s and Applebee’s tie for first place. Both food joints have been known on some occasions to sing “The Party Song,” which from what I can tell may or may not have been hijacked from The Emperor’s New Groove: “Happy happy birthday from the [Chili’s] crew/ We wish it was our birthday, so we could party too. Hey!” Some might attribute the song’s brevity to plain old lazy writing, but I say it’s catchy and effective! What’s more, the aforementioned guilt trope is built right in.
3. A birthday song should be upbeat
It is important to acknowledge that all birthday parties after the age of 21 are about forcing people to be happy about their slow descent into senility. It becomes necessary to surround ourselves with a multitude of screaming, clapping people so as to avoid sinking into a leftover box of Franzia and tissues. Take a look at Red Robin, whose own team members have created some of the most well-known restaurant birthday tunes of them all. Red Robin deserves an A+ for energy. The waiters incorporate everything from fast-paced clapping to call and response, and the routine even manages to crack a smile on this unwilling, 20-something patron:
4. A birthday song’s lyrical content should be ordinary
There’s a big difference between being recognizable and being obnoxious. The drawback to celebrating in a restaurant is that you’re probably going to get some veiled attempt at promoting the restaurant brand. Bucca Di Beppo is probably one of the worst offenders, incorporating the restaurant name twice into the song and bragging about their special meatballs and marinara. Normally, they do this with the same clapping that you also see at most other restaurants. However, in this clip, a few innovative waiters more than make up for the lyrics by incorporating some very high pitched yelping, rapping, and beatboxing. It’s an exciting display that blows everyone else out of the water, but sadly, it lacks the widespread potential required of a hit song:
5. A birthday song should be interactive
When it comes down to it, there’s really no better place to be for your birthday than good ol’ Chuck E. Cheese’s. Why? Well other than the fact that a giant rat dances to a two-hour, pre-recorded soundtrack and routine just for you, their special “Birthday Star” song actually gets you up on your feet and involved in the action. Kids are encouraged to come up to the stage area to dance, and they are split up into two sections, one that sings “happy” and another that sings “birthday.” The result is the a (relatively) heartwarming display of birthday cheer, pizza, and games.
…But oh wait. What’s happening in this last half of this video? Are they singing “Happy Birthday to You”? No. If you listen carefully, “birth” is actually held twice as long as the original song, and the word “happy” is split into two equal quarter notes as opposed to cutting short the second syllable of the word. Very sneaky, Chuck E.