This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #430: The Pursuit of Happiness by Kid Cudi, (featuring Ratatat and MGMT)
Every now and again, a song will become popular even though it ends up being wildly misinterpreted. “The Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi is one such song. Kid Cudi is a rapper who released this song in 2009. The story of this song comes in three parts: the song, itself, the official video for the song (which is among the best I have ever seen at delivering the song’s intended message) and the re-mix by popular DJ Steve Aoki (which went a long way toward misrepresenting the song in the minds of its’ audience).
First, the song. “The Pursuit of Happiness” is a warning disguised as a party anthem. Kid Cudi is a talented rapper but he also suffered from addiction and from depression, social anxiety and a whole host of other mental health conditions. Writing and rapping became an early attempt by Cudi at achieving a level of contentment and inner peace that had eluded him for most of his life up until that point. With early success came fame and notoriety. With attention, Cudi was forced to deal with his mental health issues and he did so by trying to cover them up with alcohol and drugs. In the end, he sought treatment of his own accord in rehab. This song describes that journey. However, in order to fully disclose the extent of his illness, Kid Cudi starts the song in party mode so that he can explain how that version of his public image was, in fact, fake. But, as a result of how the song starts, many folks have misinterpreted his intent and think that he is advocating a rich, self-indulgent lifestyle. This misinterpretation is clearly seen in the re-mix by DJ Steve Aoki.
While the words to the song are good enough to tell Cudi’s story of his descent into mental illness and addiction, it is really the video for this song that raises it to a whole other level. Earlier in this music series, I profiled a duo called MGMT. In that post I described a movie called “Memento”. This movie had won an Oscar for editing because of how it manipulated the movie by making the storyline go forward by having it go backward. If you missed that post, the main thing to draw from it is that the two gentlemen of MGMT are very adept at telling visual stories that play with the concept of tine. The video for “The Pursuit of Happiness” illustrates this as well as any video I have ever seen. It shows that feeling of being disconnected from others and of being trapped within your own mind and thoughts. Being in the clutches of a mental illness and/or an addiction is a form of losing control or, more specifically, of not being in control of your existence. “The Pursuit of Happiness” is a testimony about what it is like to just want to be happy but, being unable to know what that is like nor how to take the steps necessary to achieve it. The video is brilliant in placing us into Cudi’s mental headspace. Those who think that this song is a party anthem will find this video amusing. But, when you know what it is about, you will find the video jarring and lacking hopefulness. MGMT help provide the soundtrack, along with artists known as Ratatat.
When the song and video were first released, they were well-received. However, it was the re-mix that really brought it fame and recognition. Electronic Dance Music is a form of a music rave party where audience members move and groove to throbbing beats from DJs, who stand high above them on their own stage. One of the genre’s most popular DJs is a man called Steve Aoki. He is a superstar headliner at EDM Festivals. Once Aoki attaches his name to your song in a re-mix, it is a virtual guarantee that album sales will soar and the attention your song receives will grow multiple times over. That was the case when Aoki re-mixed “The Pursuit of Happiness” and began using it as a staple of his DJ sets. The unfortunate thing is, Aoki took the song as a party anthem and therefore, when he performs it, most of the original meaning gets lost and his audience ends up partying to a song about one man’s desperate attempt to conquer addiction and depression.
Kid Cudi is still alive and making music and pursuing his dream of finding the happiness and personal peace he deserves, just like we all do. I will play the official video first and then I will include the Steve Aoki re-mix so that you can see the difference in interpretation of this song. As mentioned above, I have never seen mental illness and addiction portrayed as well as they are in the official video. The feeling of hopelessness and of being trapped within a life that isn’t truly your own is presented extremely well, thanks to Cudi and to MGMT. At this point in my posts, I usually tell you to “enjoy” but, in this case, I will ask you to watch and learn and appreciate the skill on display in this cry for help. “The Pursuit of Happiness” is not a party anthem.
The link to the music video for “The Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi (Steve Aoki remix) can be found here.
A link to the website for Kid Cudi can be accessed here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for supporting all manner of excellent and important music. A link to their website can be found here.
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