There’s nothing like walking into a souvenir shop, running your hands along the personalized keychains, and feeling the rush of finding a tiny piece of plastic with your name on it. Am I right, Toms and Sarahs of the world? Up top!
Okay, I wouldn’t know. In so many displays, Dale skips ahead to Dan, and there’s never a Dami. I’ve been deprived of this small treat for way too many summers. Luckily for uniquely named people like me, Greg May has been on a mission to let everyone experience a similar joy in the form of a personalized “Happy Birthday” song he wrote. Truly, no name will be left behind.
May’s YouTube channel, named 1HappyBirthday, currently features over 310,000 videos for 31,313 different names. Each song gets multiple videos with different backgrounds and spelling variations (Like Patty, Paty, and Patti). This month, May relaunched the corresponding website, 1happybirthday.com, which now allows people to tweet, Facebook, or link to the audio for the tens of thousands of birthday song variants.
All of the songs have been individually recorded by only two singers. The first singer quit after two years; the second, a part-time singer, has recorded nearly 20,000 of May’s birthday songs. Which, intentionally or not, makes her one of the most prolific recording artists of all time.
“Yes, the singer does dream about the song in her sleep,” May says on his website.
May started the project in 2006 while working as an advertising executive in Spanish language marketing (hence the multiple Feliz Cumpleaños in the song, and the companion site, cancionfeliz.com). He launched the project by looking up the 400 most popular names in the US, and sourcing a batch of recording samples from Craigslist.
The scale of the project became obvious, so May wrote and recorded another 400 songs. Still unsatisfied, that batch led to the next, and that to the next, and so on. The common and uncommon names in the Western hemisphere weren’t enough. These days, May’s expanded internationally, and is focused on trying to cover 80 percent of the names in over 100 countries, including India, Philippines, and South Africa.
“It really never ends,” says May, “because the other 20% represents a lot of people and a lot of names, many of whom have never had anything personalized with their name.”
Don’t see your name on the list? May encourages you to complete his request form — he’ll personally call you over Skype (he makes about three calls a day) to make sure he gets the pronunciation right. There’s currently about 1,000 names on the “To Record” list, though, so you’ll have to wait at least four months to hear your name cheerfully crooned with the sound of a howling dog.
The barking portion of the birthday song is its secret sauce, and would not have been possible without May’s late dog, Cinnamon. “I was looking for a way to make this a friendly, humorous, enjoyable song that might stick and so I looked at a couple things,” May said. “One, I looked at repetition, which certainly this song has a lot of repetition in it. I looked at familiarity. I looked at a person’s name, which certainly we all want to hear our names as many times as possible. And then I just looked for this element of sort of goofiness and you know, there it was lying on the floor in the house.”
The reactions to the 1HappyBirthday song range from heartwarming to dismissive and mean. AV Club and BuzzFeed interviewed May in 2015, learning more about his life outside the song. According to May, one fan has downloaded the songs to take them to a village with no internet, and his sister, a fourth grade teacher, plays the 1HappyBirthday song for her students on their birthdays. But other articles have been uncharitable, and many commenters aren’t quite sure what to make of the project.
“Some people can only compare it to the relatively simple and nostalgic traditional birthday song and will never like it,” says May. “Some people just hate it and write that the song is out of tune or ridiculous. Others write to me with amazing stories of how important the song was to them or a child or friend. I recognize that the song may not be for everyone [..] If taken too seriously, is just plain weird. But it also features a person’s name 10 times, so hopefully they like at least that part of the song.”
Apparently it clicks with enough people. May says his YouTube channel and sites have attracted over 150 million visitors. And he points to the four-month wait list for new names as “an indicator that they like the song and that they want to be part of the 1HappyBirthday movement.”
When May first started the site, he hoped a corporate sponsor like Coke or Pepsi would step up and pay for the songs, but that day never came. The site has a donation button, but all of the costs of recording have come out of May’s own pocket. And so the project has become an act of emotional philanthropy.
When I searched the catalog for my own name, I didn’t find Dami. The closest I got was Daminee. Do I mention this, I thought, as our interview approached? Should I fill out the form? Do I need a personalized keychain or birthday song?
When May and I finally spoke on the phone, he said that he didn’t want to say hello first because he wanted to hear how I pronounced my name. I laughed, gave the pronunciation, and proceeded to my questions. Then this week, I received an email from May:
“I look forward to reading your article and best wishes for continued success & happiness. Also & FYI, “DAMI” should be added to the site on Friday.”