The Making Of CNN's 2021 Might Not Suck

January 19, 2023

‘2021 Might Not Suck’ is a sentiment that we can all relate to. As we leave 2020 behind us and the well wishes of ‘Happy New Year!’ begin to ease from our inbox, we can all be hopeful that we are looking to a better year. CNN perfectly captured this essence in the promotional campaign for Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen’s (virtual) New Year’s Eve countdown as 2020 became 2021. Live from Times Square - although rather less crowded than your average year - Cooper and Cohen hosted a light-hearted celebration to say farewell to a less-than-perfect year.

In the run up to the event, Syn’s creative network of composers, musicians, vocal directors, orchestrators and producers crossed continents (again, virtually) to create a big, bold and Broadway-style song: ‘2021 Might Not Suck’. I invite you ‘behind the scenes’ of this theatrical performance to take a look at how ‘2021 Might Not Suck’ became more than just a wish, but a statement of intent. How do you compose, arrange, record and mix a Broadway-style song in two weeks from start to finish? This was exactly the requirement that kick-started this project for CNN last December. On a call between Nick Wood (Syn’s CEO & Creative Director) and Whit Friese (Syn long-time client and Vice President/Group Creative Director of Creative Marketing at CNN), he explained that the brief was to write a musical-style song for Anderson Cooper & Andy Cohen to sing in their first recorded vocal-performance to date.

The song had to be big; powerful and triumphant, with a real sense of showmanship. With a fantastic cast of larger-than-life characters - including dancing toilet roll, singing waiters and performing emergency workers - this song needed to capture the spirit of unity, positivity and resilience that has united us all in the last 12 months, in the words of Nick Wood, “they’re not going to be happy with just piano, this is going to have to be the real ‘bang!’” Invoking something of a Syn motto of ‘no deadline is too tough’, we put the global Syn System into action for this cross-continental collaboration.

Once Nick Wood’s initial demo had been written on piano, we worked closely with South Carolina based Ron Goldstein and Toronto based orchestrator Todd Hayen, to arrange the song for a pit sized Broadway orchestra. Carefully considering how to get the best vocal performance out of Cooper and Cohen was key from the get-go, so the arrangement had to give their vocals space to share the humorous narrative. We started off by recording piano and drums in LA with renowned rhythm section Jeff Babko (piano) and Jamey Tate (drums). Recording a full orchestra mid-pandemic is not an easy task, but Syn was fortunate to collaborate in a COVID-safe way with the Shangri-La Inc. Orchestra at Tokyo’s Avaco Studios, coordinated by Syn music producer Kaz Haga, to record the larger-than-life arrangement, section by section.

This included Strings, Woodwind Brass and Percussion, Timpani, Glock and Marimba. In addition to this, we even tapped into our kitchen-based musical resources and recorded the sounds of pots and pans to add to the percussive ambience in the track (Credit to Mathieu Kranich, Production Assistant and resident kitchen-percussionist). Mixing an ensemble of this size and scale is an exciting and time-consuming task. Syn’s chief engineer, Akaku Takashi, headed to Syn’s studio in central Tokyo to tie everything together, ready to present to CNN.

Staring down the length of a microphone can be intimidating for even the most seasoned performers but, in the word’s of Sinead O’Connor, Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen must have told themselves ‘nobody gets between me and my microphone’. Their open-minded approach to their vocal performance was the icing on this musical cake, with equal measures of confidence and good-humour. Supported by Gary Griffen Syn’s long time vocal director in Ohio, and with the fully-mixed backing track to work to, Cooper and Cohen headed into the studio to lay down their vocals. Their efforts were certainly not in vain, and despite Andy Cohen’s self-deprecating comments on New Year’s Eve (“We are so bad you guys!”), the performance brings the track to life. Maybe a musical career on Broadway awaits them both.

In the words of Nick Wood, “It’s what we kind of live for. People have been working so hard behind the scenes, so I can’t wait to send it to CNN and get their reaction”. From brief to broadcast, this project was no longer than a fortnight and there’s nothing like ending the year - particularly a year like 2020 - with a creatively challenging brief such as this, particularly one that touches on collective experience in this way. These projects really are what we live for; creatively challenging, artistically stimulating, time-zone spanning and pandemic-busting!

From the instrumentalists in Tokyo and the creative team in Atlanta, down to the studio engineers in New York, this project embraces our motto of ‘Music Without Borders’ and reminds us that - whilst the challenges of 2020 continue to spill into 2021 - the human spirit of hope, humour and positive thinking remind unchanged. Many thanks to everyone involved in this project and, let’s say it again aloud, “2021 Might Not Suck”!