The Song One Wants to Hear

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At a chain “family restaurant,” typical among those found at or near the American shopping mall, my section is treated to a slightly perfunctory, but acceptable enough (lots of clapping, good volume) and VERY brief “birthday song,” which begins with a line about not being allowed to sing the actual “Happy Birthday” song. Their homegrown version is very speedy, fast-clappy, and then, after the quick presentation of a dessert to the birthday celebrant, it is OVER. Bing bam boom. Twenty seconds, max.

As I listen to their song (more of a chant, really) I wonder about helpfully informing my server, when she returns, that the copyright issue that has, for years, forced such restaurants into coming up with their own musical accompaniment to the presentation of complimentary birthday dessert, has been resolved. After a protracted court battle, “Happy Birthday” has been released into the public domain, where it belongs! How helpful I could be, I think, sipping on my dessert (a glass of whiskey). I imagine how grateful they would be to know that they can now treat diners to an actual melody – the actual melody, the familiar one. We might all be able to sing along, even, if we were so moved. Think of how we’d all be connected again, by this cultural touchstone. Think of the happy, serenaded customers!

But as I play this all out – my learned revelation to the server, her gratitude visible as she rushes off to tell her co-workers – it occurs to me that the restaurant staff might not be happy to hear the news of the liberation of “Happy Birthday.” “Happy Birthday” is a much longer time-commitment, musically, than the little chant they’ve cooked up themselves out of necessity – and it is, in fact, a song, not a chant, and as such, requires a basic musical ear and voice that not every server may possess. Think of it – you’ve heard or participated in those awkwardly dissonant versions – half the group in one key, half in another, with a few enthusiastic but tone-deaf hollerers sprinkled about. Just because the servers are allowed to sing “Happy Birthday” doesn’t mean they are required to sing it, or required to want to sing it.

Maybe because my dessert is composed entirely of whiskey, this all blooms in my mind as an imperfect metaphor for how I feel about marriage. As a queer lady partnered with another queer lady for nearly fourteen years, I am now allowed to get married. But I still don’t want to get married. I’d like to suggest to the well-meaning folks out there who are so happy we now have this option and who wonder why we don’t take it – I empathize with your wondering why we don’t participate. Indeed, so powerful is marriage in the contemporary American imagination, one of the voices questioning my opting out is one coming from inside my own head. But here’s what I’ve got: like “Happy Birthday,” contemporary secular marriage has been a cultural touchstone, a “thing we do” or, if we can’t, “a thing we want to do.” Or a “thing we are supposed to want to do.” Until recently, I could conveniently tamp down such pressures with the simple fact: I’m not allowed to. Now I’m allowed to.

But like the servers (or, okay, likely their managers/corporate masters), many of us queers didn’t wait around for the law and the culture at large to give us permission to have our lives and our loves and our families. We figured it out. We created new structures and names, and ways of talking (a lot) about boundaries, family, money, work – and we created workarounds that grew into more than just workarounds. Oh we worked and we worked around. We negotiated. We found ways to honor/trouble/subvert/reinvent long-held traditions of kinship and partnership and romance. I mean, we talked a lot. And we figured it out. And it was pretty great!

I personally do not find contemporary civil marriage superior to or more desirable than the songs we wrote for ourselves. There are good reasons to get married and good reasons to not get married. Maybe some day I will – and even if I don’t, I will continue to over-process the philosophical and practical and cultural dimensions of marriage with my lady-love because, damn, do we know how to talk something through. And through. And through.

As I hear the evening’s fifth birthday clap-chant echo briefly from a distant corner of the restaurant, I confirm that there are actually multiple versions of the chant. This one doesn’t have the first one’s specific allusion to the forbiddenness of “Happy Birthday.” I’m pretty sure I’ve actually heard three different versions of “birthday clap-chant” in this one restaurant tonight. How many different alternative songs or chants have been created – begrudgingly and/or cheerfully – in response to the completely ridiculous legal “protection” of the copyright of a song we all know by heart, even if not always in key? And what if, as I am starting to strongly suspect, these servers already know that they are allowed to sing “Happy Birthday” again – but they just don’t want to? I had assumed they didn’t know about the recent court finding because of course, if they had known, they’d be singing “Happy Birthday,” wouldn’t they? Because that’s what’s done. It’s what one wants to sing, what one wants to hear. Isn’t it?

3 thoughts on “The Song One Wants to Hear”

  1. In addition to EVERYTHING ELSE that I love about this piece, it also appeals to me because of the work I have been doing around copyright and open licensing lately. I’m thinking in particular about what the flavor should be of this “public domain” that I am trying to advocate for. This essay nails it (you know, in that non-hammer-like way poets “nail” stuff).

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