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John Phillips (Image: Archi Banal)
John Phillips (Image: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureFebruary 19, 2023

Meet the Nelson man behind TikTok’s viral ‘Bad Hair Day’ song

John Phillips (Image: Archi Banal)
John Phillips (Image: Archi Banal)

John Phillips has been writing beloved children’s songs for over 25 years, but he’s never had an audience quite like this.

A few weeks ago, John Phillips received an excited text from his daughter in Christchurch. “Dad, did you realise that ‘Bad Hair Day’ is going off on TikTok?” she asked. “Wow, that’s awesome,” the Nelson primary school teacher replied. “What’s TikTok?”

As of writing, the #badhairdaysong hashtag has over 27 million views on TikTok, providing an endless scroll of people all over the world dancing and lip syncing to the same catchy lyrics: “mousse ain’t stickin’ / water ain’t slickin’ / it looks like a feather from the back end of a chicken.” Most of the comments are from people pleading to know the song’s provenance. “WHAT IS THIS FROM” demands one. “Is this from a movie tell meee,” pleads another.

But look hard enough, and you’ll find Kiwi battlers all over TikTok setting the record straight. “THIS IS AN NZ CHILDHOOD ASSEMBLY SONG” bellows one local. “A song I sang every morning in every assembly when I was 7 has gone viral,” reflected a fellow New Zealander. It appears to have led to worldwide envy. “New Zealand kids got to sing this in the morning and I had to sing Hail Mary?” reads one caption, as its poster pensively gyrates to the sound.

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The man responsible for the song that has wormed its way into millions of ears around the world is John Phillips from Nelson, who has been teaching music for 34 years and writing children’s songs for over two decades. Frustrated by the old 1960s love songs that were provided for school assemblies – “great melodies but not the best subject matter” – he began to pen his own songs in the early 2000s. “It was really just trying to find your own style, but also find stuff that kids are actually interested in, and package it in a cool way,” he says.

Phillips recorded his first album of kids’ songs in his workshed at home, timing his recording with the barking of neighbouring dogs and chickens. “It was so expensive to record things back then,” he says. “I had all the egg cartons on the wall which was more because they looked cool than any kind of acoustic value.” His breakthrough hit ‘My Dad Loves Rugby’ (“you’d think we were the All Blacks / the way he struts about”) was accepted onto the iconic Kiwi Kidsongs compilation CD, distributed free to schools across Aotearoa and the South Pacific.

Other examples of Phillips’ tracks that turned heads included the jazzy ‘The Lost Property Box’ (“this ain’t no place for a trendy top like me / back on my coathanger is where I want to be”) and the country-inspired ‘Wobbly Tooth’ (“the tooth fairy came and he pulled up in his truck / he hopped inside my mouth and he said to me ‘it’s stuck’”). He would go on to be nominated for multiple NZ Music Awards, including children’s album of the year for The Lost Property Box and children’s song of the year for ‘Kia Kaha Tuatara O Takapourewa’.

Ed Sheeran who? John Phillips performs to an adoring crowd. (Photo: Supplied)

But nothing comes close to the success of ‘Bad Hair Day’, which Phillips remembers writing “really quickly” one morning. “My son had really curly hair, like shockingly curly, and one morning it just looked like this big mess – a big fuzznut, which is where that lyric comes from.” He sat down and started writing – he had the bad hair day concept, he landed on a hook “and away I went”, he recalls. When it came to recording, Phillips says it was important to keep the song “funky and fun”, adding in some “nice little guitar licks” played by a friend.

He sent the song to Kiwi Kidsongs for consideration, who came back with their own take on it. “It had sort of a swing feel,” says Phillips. “That was neat, but it just was not the feel that I had in my head, and so I really had to stand up for myself.” They agreed to something closer to his original vision, and enlisted the help of Palmerston North boy Theo Va’a to rerecord the vocals (now the voice all over TikTok). “Theo did such an amazingly ‘sassy’ job of the vocals,” says Phillips. “I have no doubt that this has added to the huge popularity of the song.”

Another part of the song that has captivated TikTok users is the subtle “quack” sound effect that follows the “back end of a chicken” lyric. Phillips clarifies that it was never meant to be a quack at all, but a chicken “pop off” to add some “humour and randomness” to the track. “That was 20 years ago mind you,” he adds. “I am way better at making chicken fart noises now.”

‘Bad Hair Day’ was a hit at the time. “You know pretty quickly because kids are pretty brutal,” laughs Philips. “You can tell within 30 seconds – they’ll giggle, they’ll laugh, they’ll get up, they’ll boogie. When that happened with ‘Bad Hair Day’ I knew it was going to work.” It began to spread from school to school courtesy of Kiwi Kidsongs, and Phillips recalls being “humbled” by the response. “It’s very exciting when what you put in front of these kids has a a big impact, it’s a really big way of how we sell music to them and get them involved in music.”

Years passed and ‘Bad Hair Day’ gently slipped out of rotation, until Phillips got an inkling that it was entering the zeitgeist once more. “Last year there was a little bit of a flurry around New Zealand school songs,” he recalls. “Somebody texted me and said, ‘did you know that people are rating their favourite school songs?’ ‘Bad Hair Day’ was in there, ‘Fish and Chips’, ‘Sausages and Custard’, all of those.” From here, ‘Bad Hair Day’ began to weave its tendrils around the TikTok world – now it’s a more popular hashtag in Ireland and Denmark than it is in New Zealand.

Phillips downloaded TikTok with “trepidation” upon hearing of the song’s viral success. “It didn’t make much sense to me at the start, I thought it was really random, all these short little videos of things.” But then he started to recognise that same enthusiasm from his young students in people all over the world. “All I want is for want kids to enjoy music, get passionate about it, and just get lost in the moment with it,” he says. “And that’s what I sort of see happening with this TikTok trend, people of all ages singing and dancing and asking ‘why don’t we get this at our school?’”

Another iconic Kiwi Kidsongs album

The answer to that question lies in the success of the government-backed Kiwi Kidsongs compilation CD, which encouraged musicians just like Phillips to write songs for kids in Aotearoa for nearly 20 years. Despite the Ministry of Education referring to them as “part of the cultural fabric of New Zealand primary schools”, funding was cut to Kiwi Kidsongs in 2010. “’I do hope that government-funded resources such as the Kiwi Kidsongs series can be reimplemented,” says Phillips. “It was such a valuable resource on so many levels.”

While he freely admits to having no knowledge about the inner workings of TikTok, Phillips is still hoping to make the most of this viral opportunity. He’s already been contacted by a publisher in the UK about a potential Bad Hair Day book, and is hard at work uploading all his old songs to his YouTube channel. “I do hope that other children’s song writers locally can jump on this wave while the spotlight is momentarily on us,” he says, “because each one of them is having such a huge impact on our tamariki.”

For now, he’s particularly enjoying sharing his newfound viral TikTok fame with the other musical folks in his family – especially his niece and nephew Georgia and Caleb, who also happen to be hitmaking pop duo Broods. “They actually just performed over the weekend at the Wine and Food festival in Blenheim and they did a great job, but I just thought ‘oh, we missed an opportunity here to do, you know, a ‘Bad Hair Day’ club mix or something,’” he laughs. “I rub it in their faces and they just think it’s funny.

“Here I am, old Uncle Johnny with the hit TikTok song.”

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