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When searching for gifts during the festive period, we are subject to the Christmas music emitting from the shop speakers. Love it or hate it – it’s there and it won’t go away. However, have you noticed how the playlist never changes? From Mariah Carey to Wham to Slade, we are forced to endure the same music year after year. Modern pop artists have little interest in penning a festive tune and those that have done so have largely seen their efforts go unheralded or cast off as a gimmick. So where did the Christmas hits go?
Since 2004, when Band Aid 20 topped the charts (itself a re-recording), none of the UK number one singles were related to Christmas. To many people’s dismay, The X Factor would annually supply us with the Christmas number one – a cover by a singer who would subsequently disappear into the abyss. Elsewhere, the top spot went to old tracks backed by campaigns to stop the X Factor from landing it (‘Killing in the Name of’) and charity singles. In Ireland, once the X Factor had waned, ordinary pop hits made up the charts at Christmas with Mark Ronson‘s ‘Uptown Funk’ and Justin Bieber‘s ‘Love Yourself’ being recent chart-toppers. This really conveys how no musicians these days write Christmas songs that capture the public imagination. In the 70s and 80s, there was conspicuous ubiquity of Christmas numbers surfacing each year and being met with popularity. Even when I was juvenescent youth in the early 00s, there was a collective anticipation watching Top of the Pops where people got excited about what would be Christmas number one.
Since The Darkness‘s ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)’, no Christmas song has had any longevity. A band as colossal as Coldplay could only manage to reach 13th in the charts with their festive track ‘Christmas Lights’. And the bubblegum heartthrob Bieber couldn’t garner much success with his Yuletide whine-a-thon ‘Mistletoe’ – it came 11th in the US Billboard 100 and only 21st in the UK singles chart. Meanwhile, music acts have been releasing Christmas albums but frustratingly they are dominated by covers of the classics. Bob Dylan‘s Christmas in the Heart consisted of renditions of hymns, carols and other seasonal favourites. The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection was two-thirds covers. One can admire Sufjan Stevens‘ two extensive Christmas box sets but none of their content struck a note among the general public. Contrariwise, Sia has been a refreshing exception this year, releasing Everyday is Christmas – an album comprising wholly of originals. Although it is questionable as to whether any of the Australian songstress’ tracks will join the Christmas playlist.
So what is behind the death of the Christmas hit? It’s not like we are dealing with a decline in enthusiasm for Christmas which is in turn permeating into the vein of culture. There are still a decent number of Christmas films coming out and although they may lack sophistication, they will still be put on general release. It wasn’t Simon Cowell who killed off the aura of Christmas songs as that was only a British phenomenon and I still don’t hear any Christmas hits coming from America. Some may argue that Christmas song is an another victim of the digital age where they postulate that festive songs are not as lucrative as they used to be when you could just torrent or stream them. But this argument feels to simplistic as it relates to all music. After all, a popular Christmas song would serve as a healthy cash cow through the royalties it can lead to by repeated airplay; it could be a way around the digital blockade.
In an age where image is everything and self-consciousness is at a high (partly due to social media), venturing out of comfort zone and into the land of quirkiness, goofiness and novelty is more likely to be less of an option. In my opinion, doing that is what artists probably perceive making a Christmas song to be like. I couldn’t conceive of someone like Kendrick Lamar ever making a Christmas hit because it would come off as either as a cheap commercial tactic or a general infra dig.
However, to classify Christmas music as merely a novelty is wrong and draconian. Musicians can make deep artistic statements with the theme of Christmas in their songwriting – not purely by singing about how great a time of the year it is but tying it in with a narrative. The most obvious example of this is ‘Fairytale of New York’ which just turned 30. It’s not a happy-clappy, pie-faced singalong but rather a well-written, sombre ballad which Shane MacGowan said was about “old Irish-American Broadway stars who are sitting around at Christmas talking about whether things are going okay”. Furthermore there is Chris Rea‘s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ which is a tad schmaltzy but all together warm and relatable.
Musicians need to stop taking themselves too seriously and shake the snow globe a bit in the form of writing Christmas songs. If the results are abysmal, so be it. But if there are some fruitful ones, it would be a revelation to hear a variation from the currently wearisome playlist. I don’t want a lot for Christmas, just some new songs.