Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Is Fun and, Perhaps, Something More

Pharrell Williams was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where his friends and family knew from his earliest days as a percussionist in the school band, and his singing performances in school plays, that the artist with the top song on worldwide pop charts for the last 10 weeks would amount to something rare. Even before Pharrell posted the ‘Happy’ dance video last October, he’d won seven Grammy Awards for songwriting, production, and performance, composed the soundtrack to Despicable Me and its sequel (which included ‘Happy’) and performed, produced, or composed alongside an A list of pop stars ranging from Beyonce’ to Miley Cyrus to Robin Thicke to Kanye West and Snoop Dogg.

With the ‘Happy’ video, and the enormous reach of the wired world, Pharrell has transcended boundaries of geography, class, and ideology. ‘Happy’ displays the powerful influence of music, verse, and video to attract and inspire a global audience. And though ‘Happy’ asks no more of its viewers than to laugh, dance, clap, lipsynch, and produce a video for YouTube, it proves just how quickly people, especially young people, can shape a global movement when they’re motivated.

On Christmas Day 2013 ‘Happy’ had 5 million views on YouTube. By May 10, 2014, it had 232 million views. Young people from nations on six continents had posted their own versions, many of which had attracted hundreds of thousands of views.

Now imagine, just for a minute, if that kind of global community could be called to come together to act on trends in a way that would make us just as happy.

One of the powerful unarticulated messages of ‘Happy’ is that it recognizes, ever so obliquely, that the world and its human community is a bit lost, what Pharrell describes as “a room without a roof.” His solution, emphatically stated, is “happiness is the truth.” Continue reading “Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Is Fun and, Perhaps, Something More”

The Michigan Land Use Institute Considers Changing Its Name — For What?

At the height of its statewide and national influence, the Michigan Land Use Institute's 15-member staff gathered outside the new home office in Beulah.
At the height of its statewide and national influence, the Michigan Land Use Institute’s 15-member staff gathered outside the new home office in Beulah. Back row, left to right — Gail Dennis, Charlene Crowell, Kelly Thayer, Doug Rose, Mac McCelland, Mary Ellen Pattyn, Patty Cantrell. Middle row, left to right — Johanna Miller, Jim Lively, Arlin Wasserman, Andy Guy. Front row, left to right — Jim Dulzo, Keith Schneider, Hans Voss, Betsy Alles.

BENZONIA, MI — On April 16, 1995, in one of my last articles as a staff correspondent with the New York Times, I wrote this assessment of American environmentalism’s evolving challenges. “The movement that changed the nation’s environmental ethic a generation ago is reshaping itself, and the most important aspect of that effort is a new openness to what works and what doesn’t in environmental protection.”

Six days later, on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, I met at Beulah’s Brookside Inn with Traverse City environmental attorney Jim Olson and a few more regional green heroes and formally incorporated the non-profit Michigan Land Use Institute.

The Brookside closed its doors a few years ago. And earlier this year, as MLUI approached the 19th anniversary of its founding on today’s 44th Earth Day, I received notice and a survey from the organization. It asked for my thoughts on a branding project that may very well conclude with a change in the Institute’s name. Holy focus group, Batman! What works and what doesn’t in environmental protection may include an alteration in identities.

Now, right here, allow me to acknowledge that an MLUI name change is personal. But it’s not sour grapes. I was 38 years old in 1995, and a year into a life-changing scrap with the state’s natural gas industry over drilling practices in northern Michigan’s Antrim shale. Benzie in the 1990s also was Michigan’s second fastest growing county. Among the legion of proposals popping up around here was one to turn US 31 north of Luddington into a four-lane highway. I was convinced that a professionally staffed group that focused on the ecological and economic consequences of development could do important work and prosper financially.

I put $13,000 of my own money into the organization that first year. Ted Curran, an important ally and supporter, added management guidance and welcome funding. Florence Barone and Arlin Wasserman put their keen intelligence to work. We got lucky in the summer of 1995 when 27-year-old Hans Voss, the MLUI executive director since 2000, showed up at our door looking for work. We had an active board that included Gary Appel, an educator, and whose wife, Mimi Appel, helped with development. These and a host of other people — Dick Hitchingham, Gerard Grabowski, Jack Gyr, Marty Jablonski — helped get the joint rolling in a way that steadily built our record of pragmatic advocacy, and keen communications skills.

In 1998 Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and a close friend, called the Michigan Land Use Institute the most successful new environmental organization in the United States. We were smart and fearless. I was with Hans when conservative Governor John Engler announced in 1998 that there would be no natural gas drilling in Antrim County’s Jordan River Valley, which we described as the Yosemite of northern Michigan. I was with him again several years later when the state Legislature and Congress, in separate votes, outlawed drilling for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes. Hans led both campaigns. Continue reading “The Michigan Land Use Institute Considers Changing Its Name — For What?”

Jeremy Lin Is Big Brand In China


Though no longer a New York Knick, Jeremy Lin is a brand in China as big as this building sign in Qingdao. Photo/Keith Schneider

QINGDAO — Granted I’ve spent decades loving the New York Knicks, even though they’ve been hapless for over a decade. Plus, I’m convinced the NBA is the most exciting sports league in the world.

Yet even with such personal predilections, it’s easy to argue that the best story in America this year — yes, the absolute best — was Jeremy Lin’s emergence from the end of the bench last February to propel the Knicks to seven straight victories, and eight wins in nine games.

Lin’s incomparable play at point guard — the final-seconds countdown three that beat Toronto, the fourth quarter three in Madison Square Garden that sized up and embarrassd Dirk Nowitzki, the 38 points he rained on Kobe and the Lakers in an unforgettable Friday night Garden win — earned him a three-year, $25 million contract in July with the Houston Rockets.

Though he’s no longer a Knick (more on that later) his never-to-be-forgotten fortnight also earned Lin icon status here in China. On Monday afternoon, while walking back to the hotel from the city’s Bureau of Statistics, I peered through the low canopy of Qingdao’s street trees and saw Lin’s image on a six-story billboard fixed to the north face of a downtown apartment building. Minutes later, while ordering a Cafe Americano in Starbucks (which are everywhere here, just like in New York), I spied a smartly attired Lin gracing the cover of Q, a men’s fashion and style magazine that feted him as a young man to admire.

I asked my 26-year-old interpreter whether she knew Jeremy Lin. “Oh yes,” she replied. “Smart. Tall. Handsome. Not married. Every girl in China knows Jeremy Lin.”

Those attributes, of course, aren’t the first words I use to describe Jeremy Lin. His story exemplifies and amplifies in such a wonderful way what it is to be American. And his celebrity, adorned as it is with such apparent maturity and studied modesty, could help clarify in the 21st century how sports, youth, skill, and global focus can span borders and cultures. Lin has said repeatedly in interviews that his life goal is to play an international role helping people. As an NBA player, he’s launched such important work in a significant way.
Continue reading “Jeremy Lin Is Big Brand In China”

Annals of Excess in China: The $317,000 Wedding Cake


SHENYANG, China — Does excess consumerism represent the measure of a great nation? Or does it portend something darker, a treacherous crack opening in society?

Either way, the wedding cakes for sale at the Black Swan bakery here in Liaoning’s provincial capital are a clear reflection of 1) the astounding wealth some attain in China’s bursting economy, and 2) the indecorous way that the rich communicate their separate stature.

The biggest cake, aswirl in swans and blossoms resting on pedestals of cut crystal, sells for 1,999,999 RMB or $317,000 and change. The smaller cake to the left in pix below is 199,999 RMB or $31,745.The cake to the right is 299,999 RMB or $47,618. The clerk says it’s all because of the ingredients.

— Keith Schneider


Energy, Food and Melting Ice

teaching at the Middlebury College environmental journalism fellows workshop
Bill McKibben, arguably the foremost environmentalist in the world now, and a great reporter, at the Middlebury College environmental journalism fellows workshop in California, 2010. Photo/Keith Schneider

I read with interest the interviews with Bill McKibben and Amory Lovins that Yale Environment 360 posted today and in February. Good stuff. Perplexing and nerve-wracking all at the same time.

Amory’s optimism about the prospects for clean energy, in its consistency over the last 30 years, reminds me of Lester Brown’s equally long-term pessimism about the world’s capacity to feed itself. Both have the technical details in place to make plausible cases but the actual events deny support for the theses.

Bill’s interview sounds like the several conversations I’ve had with him in recent months. A discouraging geopolitcal cocktail. Two shots escalating despair. One shot personal determination. Add melting ice.

— Keith Schneider