Song Review: Kenny Chesney, “Happy Does”

There’s a fine line between optimism and delusion these days, and this song is on the wrong side of it.

Kenny Chesney has been stuck in a weird place for a few years now, caught between mediocre message songs (“Noise,” “Get Along,” the unreleased “Rich And Miserable”), and forgettable ignore-the-message songs (“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “Here And Now”). (The less said about “The Tip Of My Tongue,” the better.) Now, in the midst of a global pandemic when the messages couldn’t be more important, Chesney has decided to take a stand…and go back to the second category with “Happy Does,” a tone-deaf Cobronavirus spinoff that’s so poorly constructed that it borders on parody. While there’s some truth to the idea that we can look on the bright side and find a sliver of happiness, given the weight of the events of 2020, this just isn’t the time or place for willful ignorance, and thus the song feels as awkward and out-of-touch as “One Margarita” or “No I In Beer.”

To its credit, the production is not the problem here, as it does a good job capturing the usual breezy island vibe that Chesney has hung his hat on for the last two decades. It opens with a bright acoustic guitar and some light-touch percussion that gives the song some bounce and optimism, creating in a happy, tropical vibe similar to the one Luke Bryan generated with “One Margarita.” This mix improves on Bryan’s song, however, by keeping the volume dialed back and maintaining its lighter feel throughout the entire song. While some electric guitars and heavier drums do jump in on the choruses (Grady Smith’s favorite clap track is here too), they’re applied selectively to avoid weighing the song down. The result, however, is a bit of a mixed bag: On one hand, it supports the writing well by encouraging the listener to relax and not take things so seriously, but on the other hand its light and fluffy texture actively encourages the listener to put their brain and autopilot and ignore what the narrator is saying. Of course, nothing of substance is said here anyway, so we’re left with some empty sonic calories that go down easy and are quickly forgotten.

So…a  song encouraging folks to chillax with a vaguely tropical vibe? This has been Chesney’s wheelhouse since the beginning of time, and he’s got his act down pat: Minimal technical demands and a song that suits his voice, a relaxed delivery, and a familiar easygoing narrator role that fits him like an old pair of shoes. By now, the audience knows what to expect from a song like this, and Chesney delivers just as he has throughout his career. The issue, however, is that reality adds an unexpected degree of difficulty: We’re living through some of the most challenging times we’ve seen in decades (if not centuries), and there are so many things that we’re understandably worried about that not even a man with Chesney’s charisma can put us at ease. Doing the same thing he’s always done just isn’t going to cut it at a time like this, and for as many times as he’s released a song like this, I don’t think I’ve even found it as un-reassuring as I do now.

And then we get to the lyrics, which are a mess for a number of reasons:

  • The narrator spends a lot of time talking about hard-luck cases that have “got a hundred reasons not to” be happy, but somehow are anyway because “happy is as happy does,” and frankly, I don’t buy a word of it. “Sunaco Charlie” is exactly the sort of underpaid schmoe stuck working at a high-risk job (gas stations are essential businesses, after all) that should be extremely worried about his future (and that’s without considering his record of failed marriages), and the idea that the dude is just breezing along singing a happy tune is so unbelievable that it makes the track come across like a Weird Al parody. The singer on the bridge, who gets no introduction besides a “she” pronoun, isn’t fleshed out enough to make the audience understand her struggles (these days she’s probably stuck eating ramen noodles and performing for free on YouTube) or convince them to care about her in the first place.
  • While this isn’t your typical Cobronavirus track (there’s no party vibe to speak of), it features the same sort of nihilistic, escapist approach to life, encouraging people to dance in the rain, jump in a lake, and “drink a beer just because.” The problem is that when you dry off or sober up, all the problems you set aside are still going to be there, and you’re eventually going to have to confront them. Finding joy in the little things is fine, but you’ll never solve a problem that you don’t step up and tackle, and I’d prefer to hear a song call folks to be more proactive in taking on life’s obstacles instead of just whistling past the graveyard.
  • The narrator doesn’t establish their credibility beyond that of the person behind the microphone. Personalizing the song (“this is what happened to me, and this is why I’m still happy”) would have gone a long way towards creating a connection between the character and the audience, but as it is we’re left with a disembodied voice that never establishes any authority on the subject. Sure, having Chesney delivering your message helps, but his charisma isn’t enough here, and the lyrics don’t have anything in reserve to help him out.

In short, this thing needed a few more drafts and a complete overhaul of the message’s framing and delivery, and even that might not be enough.

“Happy Does” is a forgettable track trying to associate itself with the feel-good vibe of the Cobronavirus trend without taking on all of its baggage, but it doesn’t fit the moment any better and comes across as delusional and unconvincing as a result. Kenny Chesney and the production are okay at best, and get dragged down by shallow, poorly-executed writing that get less believable with every listen. I get that songs may be written and recorded long before they are released, but record labels have full control over when/if songs are released, and this is a track that should have been saved for a post-pandemic world (whenever that happens). In 2020, it’s a meaningless summer track that doesn’t give you any reason to pay attention.

Rating: 5/10. “Happy is as happy does,” but happy should have done better than this.