Can research really produce the Happiest Christmas Song?
“Love’s Not Just for Christmas” isn’t only a good song. It opens doors to a host of good questions from the first upward sweep of strings. Just before they reach a crescendo, a buoyant piano pumps out chords over which a female R&B singer describes a domestic vignette from the holiday season. “The whole world smiles as there’s only love in the air,” she sings before the female vocal ensemble that back her step warmly into the bouncy chorus that concludes with the title sentiment.
The song is literally by-the-numbers. Joe Bennett is a forensic musicologist, and a British mall hired him to use his expertise to write “The Happiest Christmas Song”—something that would make shoppers happy. He looked at the 78 Christmas songs in Spotify’s British Top 200 for the week of Christmas 2016 and considered themes, keys, tempos, time signatures, vocal character and more, then sent his results to songwriters Steve Anderson and Harriet Green who wrote to the specs he derived from his research.
The results are everything a mall could want. “Love’s Not Just for Christmas” can be grasped immediately, but the verse/pre-chorus/chorus relationship is sufficiently intricate and dynamic that the song stays interesting to the end. The vocals are warm, approachable and knowing. The woman singing sounds sincere, and the ideas feel meaningful when the other voices join hers. The vocals come from the London Community Gospel Choir, who have backed up Madonna and George Michael, but like many backing singers, the voices don’t have the individuality that makes them memorable. Nothing in the song gives us a clue who the woman is who thinks love’s not just for Christmas, and without that persona to anchor the song, “Love’s Not Just for Christmas” sounds like an ad for Christmas more than a Christmas song. A good ad, but an ad nonetheless, and the video reinforces that as it’s shot in a mall with happy people of all ages smiling and dancing. Even Santa thinks love’s not just for Christmas.
Bennett used British Christmas favorites in his research, and that likely tweaks the results a little. British holiday favorites “Merry Christmas Everybody” by Slade, “I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard, “Merry Christmas Everyone” by Shakin’ Stevens, and “Driving Home for Christmas” by Chris Rea are Christmas season staples in England that have little presence in the U.S., and the emotional storytelling in the annual holiday season ad by the British retailer John Lewis has made Christmas-free songs by Lily Allen (“Somewhere Only We Know”) and Frankie Goes to Hollywood (“Power of Love”) into seasonal songs.
Still, it’s unlikely that an American playlist would have produced drastically different results. In the mid-’90s, conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid explored the intersection of art, taste and nationality when they embarked on the “People’s Choice” project. They used polling to determine what people liked best, first in art and eventually music, then created the objects that their research said people would and wouldn’t want.
As Luc Sante wrote in the New York Times:
Beginning late in 1993, telephone researchers hired by them questioned 1,001 Americans of all demographic shadings, asking them about their preferences as to color, dimensions, settings, figures—102 questions in all. Sixty-seven percent of respondents liked a painting that was large, but not too large—about the size of a dishwasher (options ranged from ''paperback book'' to ''full wall''). A whopping 88 percent favored a landscape, optimally featuring water, a taste echoed by the majority color preferences, blue being No. 1 and green No. 2. Respondents also inclined toward realistic treatment, visible brushstrokes, blended colors, soft curves. They liked the idea of wild animals appearing, as well as people—famous or not—fully clothed and at leisure.
Then, they made paintings tailored to the poll results, creating “Most Wanted” and “Least Wanted,” and because they also polled people in 13 other countries and on the web, they created similar paintings for those locales, including China, Denmark, Finland, Holland, the Ukraine and Kenya.
The project wasn’t an art prank, but it had an obvious, overly literal sense of humor that playfully obscured some of the shade the project threw in many directions. Because it was a methodology more than an object, they collaborated with composer Dave Soldier to also make the Most Wanted and Least Wanted song.
YouTube commenters aren’t always the most reliable critics as many approach a video with knives drawn, but some said that they preferred the Least Wanted song. “This sounds like something that America would send if they were allowed to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest,” one wrote. “This sounds like it's from a bad nineties softcore porno,” wrote another, and one post nailed it when he wrote, “This is the song that pleases everyone but pleases no one.”
That dialogue was part of the point of the “People’s Choice” project, while the Happiest Christmas Song came from a more mercantile place. Still, the two songs offers a clue as to what we want from music all year long. The tracks not only lack a lead singer with a distinctive voice, but they lack a distinctive point of view. The Christmas songs and summertime jams we respond to all feel like they come from someone and fit in an individual’s aesthetic, even when the songs are mass produced. The song is the vehicle we use to feel closer to an artist, even if the artist isn’t really the person we think he or she is. Perhaps that’s the reason the John Lewis songs become part of Christmas. They come from artists viewers know—or feel like they know—and connect to. I may not believe that all Mariah Carey wants for Christmas is you, but I believe she’d like to be thought of as someone with such humble desires. I can’t shop for the woman who sings “Love’s Not Just for Christmas” because I don’t know who she is, and because I don’t, I don’t know how to take her thoughts on this whole love thing.