I’m not so much of a curmudgeon that I’ve started disliking Christmas. I love Christmas. But, for the most part, I hate Christmas songs. I hate them because they’re crap. I hate them because they’re overplayed. And I hate them because they’re crap. They’re mostly crap. However, out of the crap that is Christmas music, I’ve endeavoured to fix on a few tracks that I actually quite enjoy (as well as a host that I don’t) to bring you this festive article all about the music of contemporary Christmas.
Part of the reason I suspect Christmas music has been historically terrible is due to the phenomenon of Christmas number one, the song played most at Christmas that reaches the top of the charts. For this reason, it seems that so many artists fall into the trap of vying for the number one spot by squeezing out trashy drivel in a desperate attempt to secure themselves success (and money). I’m talking, of course, about the likes of Last Christmas by Wham!, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by Julie Garland, and Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms.
The reason why these songs are so dreadful is, again, that they seek to utilise the commercial elements of the holiday season to create a platform for their own success. It seems this trend of Christmas musical money-whoring kicked off in 1942 with White Christmas by Bing Crosby, named (by Guinness World Records) the best-selling single of all time. Thereafter, everyone else I’ve mentioned attempted to replicate this success.
Christmas music, it seemed, was doomed to shed the sincerity of the bygone era of hymns and carols that preceded it and cynically saw money as the new ultimate objective. It went hand-in-glove with the rising tide of post-war American consumerism. Like American consumerism, the new trend seemed to be all about the manufacture of cheap crapola for the sake of a quick buck.
NOT all Christmas songs are bad
That’s not to say, however, that all Christmas songs are bad. And what do I mean by a bad song anyway? I mean anything that doesn’t come from the heart. Anything that’s churned out for profit. Anything that’s dull, cliched, lazily written, or otherwise objectionable due to its lack of sincerity or its shoddy inner motivation.
The phenomenon of Wham! is my favourite example. This is a Christmas track I despise. I hear it every year, about thirty times over, at Christmas (again, I time of year I love), and it just grates with me. Of course, there are tenable counterexamples. Of course, there are the more subversive Christmas songs, more humorous Christmas songs, and those which come close to rekindling in all of us the true spirit of Christmas.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) references the ending of the Vietnam War in its title. The lyrics speak of moving bravely out into a new world, and a new year, “without any fear”. It’s undoubtedly overplayed. It used to annoy me more than it does now, and the sentiment in the lyrics has lost a great deal of its meaning since the Vietnam War ended.
That said, it’s still a commendable song. It still seeks to unite the disunited and spread something like the true spirit of Christmas which; in this context; we might imagine as something like an ideological stance of bringing peace and goodwill to all people. It’s a very humane piece of music. It’s far from being Lennon’s best track, some might cynically say there’s a commercial bent to it, but I think they’re wrong. It strikes me as being a song to subvert the genre of the Christmas song rather than uphold anything consumerist in character.
A personal favourite of mine was always the Greg Lake song I Believe in Father Christmas. It discusses notions of belief and unbelief and what it means, going from being a young child to being an adult, to shed belief only to have it reignited once again later in life. The atheism of the song is palpable. Its lyrics are deeply subversive.
Nonetheless, its final verse contains within it a message of hope. Released in 1975, Peter Sinfield’s lyrics end on a patch of darkness and typical seventies austerity with the line “the Christmas we get we deserve”.
The politics of the era runs palpably beneath the lyrics with footage of the Vietnam War playing in the video. It was beaten to the number one spot by Bohemian Rhapsody, and perhaps deservedly so. Nonetheless, it remains one of my favourite pieces of Christmas music, and will always remind me of being in my dad’s car at Christmas time doing last-minute Christmas shopping.
For the next track, I think it’d be rude not to mention Band-Aid. The first iteration of Do they know it’s Christmas was released in 1984 after the supergroup was founded by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in the same year. Like Live Aid, the purpose of the song’s release was to raise money for the venerable concern of mitigating famine in Ethiopia.
Who could claim that this song’s inherently awful? It has a good purpose and good sentiment at its core and it’s even something I enjoy listening to. I first became aware of Band Aid back in 2004 with the re-release of Do they know it’s Christmas under the aegis of Band Aid 20. It turned me into a U2 fan and I remember deriving from this song a deeper awareness, and concern for, global issues. For that, I cannot thank the members of Band-Aid enough, and I feel it’s a phenomenon that aligns with what ought to be the true spirit of Christmas.
Then we have Fairytale of New York conjuring up (for my wee British mind) images of the Big Apple and a fairy-tale land across the sea. I know very little about The Pogues and their music other than this song, and, when someone says they don’t like Christmas songs, I find it’s this song in particular that you ought to mention in an effort to change their minds.
As a rule, yes, I don’t like Christmas songs. But this one’s a belter. It has none of the spirits of Christmas. It’s underpinned by a savage, gritty realism. That said, it deserves its props in the pantheon of Christmas greats and serves as an example of another subversive masterpiece. A fantastic addition to Christmas music in my opinion and one I always secretly enjoy coming on the radio during the festive season even when I feel determined to hate Christmas music.
This is not, however, my favourite Christmas song. My favourite Christmas song is one you’ve probably never heard of. It’s called Run With the Fox by Chris Squire and Alan White. It’s folksy and pleasant to listen to. It has a brilliant opening with pipes and a piano. The lyrics speak of facing the future “undaunted” and that, I think, reflects something of the true spirit of Christmas.
There’s an element in the Christmas spirit of taking stock and preparing for a new year. This is reflected here. What’s also reflected in subtle politics. The lyrics speak of humanity thriving on “mass confusion”. Perhaps, here, the lyric (also, interestingly, by Peter Sinfield) seeks to comment on notions of life in the West driven by corporatism and news media. I like lyrics that seek to get away from that paradigm and subvert the post-war (consumerist) spirit of Christmas.
So that’s it, my conclusion is, of course, that Christmas songs are not so bad (but loads of them are still awful). I feel there’s a vacillation between times when a great song will rise to the number one spot and times when some godawful trash will occupy the spot.
That might just be part of what Christmas is now. To some extent, we might have to roll over and accept the commercial aspects of Christmas. Nonetheless, however, I feel that we ought to remind ourselves more that Christmas is a time for the love of one another, our fellow humans, and listening to more great music underpinned by the desire to spread peace, love and goodwill. Have a very merry Christmas everyone and I look forward to writing to you again in the new year.