The slightly unnerving fact about this song is that it was designed with this precise effect in mind. The London ad agency BETC, working on behalf of the baby-food behemoth Cow & Gate, wanted to engineer a piece of music to delight children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. There’s a video on the agency’s website that documents the creation of ‘‘the world’s first song scientifically proven to make babies happy.’’ During a monthslong testing period, the team — which included both a developmental and a musical psychologist — asked British parents to tell them which sounds made their infants happiest. They then gathered recordings of the most popular of these sounds, which they tested on actual babies, measuring heart rates and facial expressions and vocalizations. The video includes footage of babies wired up to heart monitors, as scientists pore over complicated-looking data-modeling software. The findings of all this research were eventually handed over to Imogen Heap, whose resulting song incorporates many of the sounds — beeping horns, ringing bells, meowing cats — determined to be the most captivating to the most babies.
What we are talking about here is, in some unavoidably literal sense, mind control. And the song is such an effective dopamine-delivery mechanism that I sometimes wonder, as I cue it up for the ninth time in a row, whether I am unwittingly laying down the precise neural pathways in my daughter’s tender little brain that will ensure a lifetime of addictive behavior. There is something creepy, too, about the way the song attempts to achieve its ends, leveraging the emotions of babies to increase parents’ awareness of a baby-food brand. And you wouldn’t have to lean too hard into this interpretation to start seeing the song — which was conceived as a corporate-branding exercise, germinated in a mulch of data and audience testing, optimized for maximal engagement and delivered via algorithmic targeting — as a troubling intensification of existing trends in the production of culture under capitalism. When I think about it like this, there’s a sense in which ‘‘The Happy Song’’ flies in the face of my arguably quixotic parenting ethos, much of which boils down to: ‘‘Keep capitalism as far as possible from the children for as long as possible.’’
But these are also somewhat abstract considerations, given that since ‘‘The Happy Song’’ came into our lives, the total number of Cow & Gate products purchased by either myself or my wife remains zero. Based on this admittedly small sample, the song is far more effective at making babies happy than it is at making adults buy stuff. And that’s what is so joyous about the song: the fact that it works. She’s unhappy, and then the song comes on, and then she’s happy. In its simplicity, it feels like a kind of magic.
The world is a complex and, in many ways, unthinkably dark place, and I am well aware that the window of time in which it is possible to transform my daughter’s unhappiness into joy by playing a jaunty little song is already closing. If the ad agency’s research is accurate, my daughter remains within its target demographic for less than four more months. And it’s the knowledge of this ephemerality that makes the song, and its effect on her, so precious. It won’t work forever, because she won’t forever be so small and innocent. But right now it works. Right now it’s the greatest song ever written.