Nothing marks the start of the Christmas season more than the sound of festive music. As November draws to a close, Christmas tunes creep into cafés, supermarkets, and the set lists of street buskers, as the happiest season begins.
Our culture is hungrier than ever before. Trends in television, fashion, and social media are increasingly short-lived, as we collectively consume, reproduce, and do to death anything new, before casting it aside for the next fad.
Yet despite this, the roster of Christmas songs has stayed the same for years. Since I was a child, I have heard the same tunes every year, and by now the sounds of Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé are as integral to Christmas as the smell of mulled wine and the annual rummage around for the festive socks you got last year.
A new song hasn’t really broken into this canon since Carey’s 1994 hit and, setting aside covers of existing tunes (looking at you Mr Bublé), the closest anything has come since then is Arianna Grande’s 2014 release Santa Tell Me.
But this isn’t for a lack of trying. Over the past few years, Christmas albums have been released by Robbie Williams (2019), Jessie J (2018), and Kylie Minogue (2015), and singles from the Jonas Brothers (2019), Katy Perry (2018), and Kelly Clarkson (2017).
Yet most of these releases have, comparatively speaking, bombed. Although many achieved some success, particularly in the album charts, only one original song (Leona Lewis’ One More Sleep) has entered the UK Top 10, and the last time that a new Christmas song hit the number one spot was in 2008 with Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah.
Even this limited success has been ephemeral: only three of the ten most popular Christmas songs in the current UK charts are from the last decade, and songs from the 21st century barely penetrate all-time lists for best-selling singles.
So, why aren’t these songs getting played? Are Christmas songs getting worse? Or is something else at work?
One reason may well be the peculiar nature of the Christmas season. One of the reasons that artists and songs normally rise and fall so quickly, is the grassroots nature of music: new artists are found by a usually young audience, and this audience is highly versatile and fluid. But this changes in the festive season, as the average listener gets older, and audiences move from clubs and live events to homes and office parties.
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Moreover, Christmas is a time for tradition, rather than discovery. In an article for NPR, music historian Dr Demento compares music to food:
“Most Americans eat pretty much the same big meal every year, turkey and all the trimmings. If they introduce a new recipe, people will comment about it. ‘Hey, what’s this?’”
The brevity of the Christmas season also affects music in a unique way. Theories of aesthetics and psychology say that the relationship between familiarity and enjoyment of music is shaped in an ‘inverted-u curve’. To put it simply, the more you listen to a piece of music, the more you like it; but after a while, you become sick of it.
This means that new songs are at a particular disadvantage at Christmas. If song A and song B are equally ‘good’, but song B has been around for ten years longer, it’s going to start further-up the curve and so appear more ‘enjoyable’ to the average listener. Normally, listeners would get bored of song B after a while, and song A would become more popular. But the Christmas season is so short that there isn’t enough time for this to happen, and listeners get 11 months to forget just how annoying Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody is.
This curve is borne out in the fact that Christmas songs often peak a few years after their release. Arianna Grande’s Santa Tell Me is only now getting into the popular consciousness six years after its release, and All I Want for Christmas is You only hit the number one spot this year, 26 years after it was first recorded.
Yet graphs and psychology may not be enough to explain the lack of good new Christmas music. When singles like Wham!’s Last Christmas were released, people would have to buy or rent them to listen to them whenever they wanted to. Even if they sat unused in a drawer for eleven months of the year, the financial transaction had still been made.
Now, music is primarily streamed, and what little income artists get from this is per stream. If I really love Katy Perry’s Cozy Little Christmas, I will have to listen to it three times every day in December to make it as valuable as her Hot N Cold, which I might (hypothetically) listen to twice a week all year round.
Throw into the mix the fact that most artists now make their money from touring and live events, and the situation is even worse. Who is realistically going to put time and money into producing a song that you can’t bring on tour or to the major festivals, and can only be performed for eight percent of the year?
Maybe Christmas songs are getting worse. With no incentive to write good new songs, artists can afford to sit out the season, or just release a hastily put-together album of covers and get the cash from stocking-filler album sales. Maybe it’s a sign that our culture is collapsing under the weight of its own nostalgia. Or maybe in 2040 I’ll be listening to the Jonas Brothers’ Like it’s Christmas, and grumbling to my children that there are no good Christmas songs anymore.