Pharrell Williams is a mult-platinum, multi-grammy-winning, international… you get the idea. Pharrell’s a big deal. He’s rich, he’s famous, he’s “Happy.” And now he’s “Artist-in-Residence” at New York University.
In an event at Manhattan’s Town Hall hosted by NPR and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Williams sat down for a career-spanning discussion with Jason King, an NPR host and professor at the school’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. But other than his appearance at Town Hall, it’s unclear what exactly such his residency will entail: Williams is not listed on the Tisch website as an artist-in-residence.
Lots of colleges have guest speakers; your Fortune 500 executives, local television or sports personalities, former government drones, etc. When you go to NYU, you get Pharrell, blushing under the spotlight as you beg your professor to play the “Superthug” video. In the nearly 100-year-old, 1,500-capacity theater just off Manhattan’s Times Square, King peppered him with questions about his new music, his start in the business, and through some of his favorite hits. He told of learning how to write songs from Tammy Lucas, tweaking a clavichord to sound like a middle eastern guitar on “Superthug,” and how the women of Brazil’s night clubs were the inspiration for Kelis’ “Milkshake.”
Mostly, Pharrell did his best to swat King’s more leading and flattering questions while remaining humble. He spoke of consciousness (“As an individual, our biggest responsibility is to be self-aware”), social responsibility (“I am not an activist”) and trying too hard (“Every time i aim, I miss”). He recalled how the music at his apartment building in Virginia Beach, Atlantis, sounding amazing amid the “exotic aromas” of the ’70s (marijuana).
Williams swears that his success is due to his “Mr. Magoo” theory, in which he merely stumbles upon these genius works of songwriting because it feels right, or he thinks it sounds good. He feels very comfortable saying “I don’t know,” and as a veteran of years of doing international press, is hyper conscious of how his words can be used to construe narratives other than his own.
The kids from the Clive Davis Institute that volleyed questions at him at the end of the talk were often looking for actionable data, some nugget of advice that was going to give them a leg up on the often Sisyphean task of “making it” in the record business. It’s that “leg up” that just justifies all that tuition NYU collects… right? One student asked how he could balance making the music he wants while also “sounding like it belongs on the Hot 100.” In one of the night’s more poignant moments, Pharrell plainly advised the student against the very idea. “You don’t want to get famous being something you’re not,” Williams said. “You’re going to get tired of wearing that mask.”
Williams’ humility prevented him from making any statements that might insinuate he deserved success, often deflecting with the line “everything I have is a gift.” What was left unsaid is that given a chance, talent tends to separate itself from the chaff, and the end of the day, there aren’t many (if any) other Pharrells out there. But even this one needed a bit of luck.