The other day I was playing a game with my three year old daughter in which we were making up funny songs, based on themes that we each took turns to suggest. So, I had to come up with songs about sheep, or busses, or cakes, for example. One song that she sang sounded particularly happy and upbeat – a fun kid’s song. Just out of curiosity, I then asked her to sing me a ‘sad song’, and what she did was (a) hilarious, and (b) really interesting. She basically just sung the same melody but slower, in a breathy, fragile voice, and did so while pretending to look ‘sad’ (in the same way that a mime-artist might do). This was wonderful as it linked directly to something that has been floating around in my head for the last few Christmases. Namely, the phenomenon of the ‘Christmas advert’ – typified by those for John Lewis(a UK department store), for example – which seem to have become (inter)national events, in recent years.
Most people reading this, certainly those from the UK will be familiar with the phenomenon that I am referring to. Essentially, these are adverts (commercials) that last for approximately 2 minutes in which a supposedly heartwarming, Christmas (or winter, at least) narrative is played out, often with an emotional message or display of seasonal good will. Importantly, however, the songs used in each of the adverts are cover versions of famous pop songs. If you are not sure what I am referring to then the following example is the most recent John Lewis advert (‘The Man on The Moon’) featuring a cover version of ‘Half the World Away’, by Oasis.
I should, at this point make a disclaimer. This is, in no way an anti-Christmas post or any sort of attack on this type of advertising. It seems to be incredibly effective and, year on year, the production standard of the content gets better and better, in my opinion. The creative teams and the advertising companies have really managed to find a way to tug at the heart-strings and it works beautifully. What I am interested in, however, are the ways in which music is used in these adverts and, my hypothesis is that it is only a slightly more sophisticated version of the way in which my daughter made her ‘happy’ song sound ‘sad’ (see above).
Before getting down to talking about the music I’d like to make a blanket apology to any musicologists who are already working on this. I did a literature search to see what else has been written on this subject but did not come across anything similar. If you know of anything, please put it in a comment at the bottom of this post – I’d love to read anything on this subject.
The following is just some brief observations of interesting issues relating to the treatment and use of music in the type of Christmas adverts described above, using the annual Christmas advertising campaigns of John Lewis as a small-scale case study.
The John Lewis Christmas adverts have been launched annually since 2007. For the purposes of this post, I will ignore the 2007 advert as it is completely different in tone to all those that followed (due to different creative and marketing teams) – the music is Prokofiev’s ‘Morning Serenade’ (from Romeo and Juliet). This commercial is clearly presented as an ‘advert for John Lewis’ which conveys the obvious message that this retailer will help you find the right gift for anyone. The explicitly consumerist advertising approach is something that the subsequent adverts seem to try to avoid (although, clearly this is a contradiction).
Considering the adverts from 2008-2015, however, it seems as if there are a few key compositional/production strategies at work here and I’d like to explore them very briefly. This is not simply an example of my curiosity getting the better of me (or a procrastination exercise, while I should be marking essays). I feel that considering the way that music has been treated in these adverts is useful for students of popular music composition, as there is clearly some value in understanding the ways in which music can be presented and ‘used’ to elicit certain emotional responses from listeners (or consumers, as the case may be).
Technique 1: Slow it Down…
One of the things that hits you when listening to the music in these adverts is that they often feel slower than the originals in some way. As this fits with my original theory, I conducted a (very!) quick analysis of the tempi, and compared the original to the ‘John Lewis Version’. I did this in a very unscientific way by determining the tempo for a period of 4 bars, at 3 separate points in the song (randomly sampled), and then calculated the mean. Interestingly, of the 8 comparisons, only 4 of them showed a clear reduction in tempo for the cover version (although the average tempo reduction turned out to be approximately 23.2%). This does not include the version of Oasis’ ‘Half the World Away‘ used in the 2015 (‘Man on The Moon’) advert which is played at approximately the same tempo but with a relaxed half-time feel. Compare the originals with the cover versions to hear the effect of the changes in tempo.
|Song||John Lewis Version||Original Version|
|From Me to You||Watch||Watch|
|Sweet Child o’ Mine||Watch||Watch|
|Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want||Watch||Watch|
|The Power of Love||Watch||Watch|
Technique 2: Make the Voice Sound ‘Gentle’
Ok, ‘gentle’ is probably the wrong word (perhaps ‘fragile’ is better) but it is close to what I mean. The vocal delivery in each of the cover versions sound either:
- Childlike, as in the first part of the ‘From Me To You‘ cover version
- Naive (not meant as a pejorative at all!) as in the ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine‘ cover version, on account of the cracks in the voice, the mid-phrase breathing, for example.
- Breathy and ‘whisper-like’, as in the ‘Your Song‘ cover version
- Generally ethereal as in almost all of the cover versions in question, particularly the cover versions of ‘Half The World Away‘, ‘The Power of Love‘, and ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want‘
- Rubato vocal performances, as in the cover of ‘Somewhere Only We Know‘, for example.
It should also be noted that in 6 (possibly 7) of the 8 pieces of music in question we are talking about songs that were originally sung by male vocalists but that have been replaced by female singers in the cover versions used in these adverts. Although I am not suggesting for a second that female voices are necessarily more gentle or fragile than male voices, I think the breathy, ethereal, tone of the particular vocal performances used in these adverts are decidedly ‘gentle’ in nature and contribute greatly to achieving the advertisers’ desired effect.
Technique 3: ‘Ballad-ise’!
What do I mean by this? Well, clearly it follows on from the point above, but, if we take the cover versions of ‘Half The World Away‘, ‘Somewhere Only we Know‘, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine‘ and ‘From Me to You‘, as examples it is clear that they are each being performed in a manner that is very different to the original. They are (mostly) slower, more sparse or ‘open’ (in production terms), and the orchestration has changed dramatically. On the latter point, this includes things like prominent guitar parts being replaced by pianos, the inclusion of orchestral instruments (strings, percussion, for example) and the harmony presented in a more simplistic way. In short, they are presented as ‘ballads’ and therefore, we associate these performances/productions with love and romance, or even melancholy, loss or regret – emotions and feelings that are often prevalent at this time of year. As such, when coupled with the visual component of the advert, the contemplative sentimentality of the narrative, and the implicit messages and moral suggestions, we are manipulated into experiencing these pieces of music in ways that do not necessarily tally with our experience or understanding of the originals. Instead, we now understand and experience them in a way that ties in with the prevailing mood, feeling and ‘message’ of the advert and the imagined emotion of the Christmas/winter/holiday season.
This has really got me thinking and I am now planning a more thorough and rigorous analysis of this subject. In the mean time, however, I love the idea of the ‘John-Lewis-isation’ of popular music and think it would be fun to use the approaches that I have outlined above as formulaic techniques for students to use in popular music composition/production/orchestration exercise. By using this concept as a framework, such an exercise will encourage students to analyse and gain an understanding of the most salient components of a song and then re-orchestrate, re-harmonise, and re-record (i.e. manipulate) famous songs in order to ‘John-Lewis-ise’ them. Can we simply use the techniques of tempo reduction, fragile vocal performances and sparse romantic orchestration/production to create this effect, or is there more to it than this? This could be fun…