Christmas With the Algorithm

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(Pictured: Frank, Bing, and Deano, from the 1964 movie Robin and the Seven Hoods.)

On Christmas Eve at my sister-in-law’s house, I fired up Pandora on her smart TV to get some holiday atmosphere. Rather than choosing a designated Christmas channel, I decided to enter the name of a song and see where the algorithm took us.

I started with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love. The mix was decent, mostly pop hits from the 60s and 70s, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” stuff from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the boozy charm of Dean Martin, that kind of thing. It took practically no time at all for the algorithm to yak up U2’s cover of Darlene, which didn’t surprise me at all. But after an hour or so, it repeated Darlene, and not long after repeated U2, and I decided at that point to try another approach. So I entered “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole. That mix repeated a few of the songs from the Darlene Love mix at first, but eventually began to tap a bottomless well of tracks by Nat, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra, which got kinda dull after a while.

(The Darlene Love mix also knocked me out of Whamageddon.)

(Digression: is there a similar contest with the goal of avoiding Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne”? Because I didn’t hear that goddamn thing at all this year. Or “The Christmas Shoes” either.)

But back to the topic: the Nat mix had a lot more carols than the Darlene Love mix, which was made up predominantly of secular songs, although some of the secular songs overlapped. The Nat mix also included performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale, highly atmospheric on Christmas Eve but also at least 70 years old, and too traditional for the Darlene Love mix. The Darlene Love mix pulled Vince Guaraldi performances not just from the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but from the Charlie Brown’s Holiday Hits compilation, thus dropping in some non-holiday clunkers that didn’t belong.

The strangest thing about comparing the two mixes is the Dean Martin factor. You’d assume that he would be placed alongside Sinatra, Crosby, and such—but you would be wrong. The Darlene Love mix contained several Dean Martin tracks, the Nat mix none at all. Do the designers of the algorithm think that Deano, who sounds more blitzed on Christmas songs than he does on his non-Christmas hits, is better suited to a playlist that skews younger, or young-ish? Or is that delivery considered inappropriate for a mix that includes religious songs? I’m not sure what other reasons there might be, but it struck me weird.

Another thing I realized while listening: While Nat and Bing could not only sell a Christmas song but make it their own, Sinatra sings most of his like he’s just putting in the time. He never seems to commit to any of them.

My Christmas Eve adventure with Pandora wasn’t a science experiment. I didn’t sit there with pencil and paper keeping track of songs, however interesting that may have been to do. What you’re reading here was what I noticed amidst conversations with family members and trips out to the porch to grab another beer.

Plausibly Related: Radio stations dump Christmas music entirely at 12:01AM on the 26th, even stations that have been all-Christmas since early November, like they were fleeing an embarrassing one-night stand. (Some drop it sooner, as early as mid-afternoon on the 25th.) But that ignores the way people live. Families frequently celebrate Christmas on the weekend after. A lot of people take time off between Christmas and New Year’s and keep the holiday vibe going for several days. So I don’t see a downside to playing a bit of Christmas music in the days after the 25th. Sirius/XM did it on one of the channels we listened to while driving home on the weekend of the 28th and 29th, and we enjoyed it.

One year, one of my stations mixed in Christmas music through the following weekend and listeners actually called up to thank us. It’s a holiday season, after all.

5 responses

  1. I have never been able to figure out Pandora (or Spotify)’s algorithims. Then, my musical tastes could confuse just about anyone or anything (“Really? He thinks this goes with that?”).

    But it’s not just me—I hear it from just about anyone who doesn’t make the safest imaginable choice for a starting point (I dunno…”Happy Together” by the Turtles for a 60’s hits playlist) gets into the weeds eventually. Some sooner rather than later.

    My 28-year-old daughter told me a few years ago that no matter what she began with, it would end up with Hungarian death metal by the seventh song.

  2. Interesting post, Jim, but I have a question for Mike Hagerty:
    QUOTE: “Happy Together by the Turtles for a 60’s hits playlist”
    Now you have me thinking. Does Pandora even allow “Happy Together”? SiriusXM bought Pandora and SXM 60s on 6 famously still will not play Turtles hits, years after that ugly lawsuit was settled.

    1. Gary: Good question. I haven’t even bothered with Pandora in years (I mostly use Spotify), so I had to go look. Turns out the Turtles aren’t allowed, so I’d either need another song or to see where saying yes to the cover versions of “Happy Together” (Weezer, The Ventures, Gerard Way or The Regents) would take me.

  3. Classic example—inspired by this thread, I punched up “Daily Mix 1” on Spotify. It turns out to be a pretty good playlist of old-school MOR and jazz, but it begins with Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. Say what?

  4. Brian L Rostron | Reply

    How did Bing and Frank get along? They must have done so enough to work together. I recall that JFK stayed at Bing’s place in Palm Springs, thus snubbing Sinatra because of his mob ties, right?

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