Do they know it’s Christmas?! Why today’s meek festive pop lacks the crucial chaos element
When you think of the sound of Christmas, it’s Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby battling over the same wholesome carols. Eartha Kitt and Elvis Presley banging out the horny (Santa Baby) and melancholy (Blue Christmas) pop classics with shades of divorce. Ex-members of the Beatles and their jaunty, war-torn offerings. Reliable and constant, old and faithful; still relatively close to traditional Hallmark card images of people gathered around an upright piano in front of an open fire. They are mainstays because they’re great songs, but also because modern hit-makers have struggled to replace them. Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You is 28 years old. Even Kelly Clarkson’s Underneath the Tree, arguably the last modern addition to the Christmas canon, was released almost a decade ago.
The problem is that today’s songwriters shoot too classy. Remember Elton John and Ed Sheeran’s Merry Christmas? Nobody does. Ariana Grande and Leona Lewis have made worthy contributions to the modern canon, striking the perfect balance of frivolity and flair like Mariah before them, but they made the mistake of writing songs that are good because they’re good, not songs that are good because they’re slightly off their rocker. Christmas songs fail when they don’t reflect the spirit of the season, pairing nicely with the act of taking a drunk selfie in a paper hat at 10am. Having a buffet of freezer “bits” from Iceland as a between-meals snack. Dad spluttering swear words as he fails to assemble a child’s toy. Violent attempts to tranquillise the cat so it can travel five hours to Abergavenny without getting a stress injury. Ergo, a good modern Christmas song must reflect the intensifying chaos of the world. It must be willing to be a bit crap, but in the right way, and requires a really dialled-up, manic edge.
What we’re looking for is more along the lines of Bad Sharon by Robbie Williams and Tyson Fury, which conjures an aggressively drunk but spiritually devoid office party scene and refers to Santa as a “big dosser”. We’re talking Bob Dylan’s Must Be Santa, a mad jig with a music video that sees him reeling around a house party like Jigsaw on his trike. We’re talking Justin Hawkins of metal rockers the Darkness thrusting into a Les Paul and crying “don’t let the bells end”. We’re talking a Sheffield record label called Off Me Nut putting out a compilation of bassline, jungle and rave covers of festive bangers for you to “completely swing the turkey around the room to”.
The secret ingredient to a good Christmas song is chaos. Always has been. Take a closer look at all the hits from the 1970s onwards and I guarantee you will find nothing but commotion. From a gang of celebrity furries inserting the phrase “a wombling merry Christmas” into popular lexicon to Cliff Richard belting out Our Father to the tune of Auld Lang Syne like it’s The Lion King on Broadway, Christmas songs have always had a one foot in the unhinged. The chorus of Elton John’s Step Into Christmas is so high octane it could unseat Lewis Hamilton. And let us not forget that in 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion, the Christmas No 1 was an eerie Michael Andrews and Gary Jules cover of Mad World – a song originally inspired by Arthur Janov’s theory that nightmares about dying are good for tension release. God bless us, everyone!
Related: The 50 greatest Christmas songs – ranked!
Destiny’s Child’s 8 Days of Christmas changes the number of days of Christmas from 12 and swaps a partridge in a pear tree for “a crop jacket with dirty denim jeans”: a great modern Christmas song. Special mention goes to Atlanta rap king Gucci Mane repurposing the lyrics of Jingle Bells to brag about “trappin’ through the snow / Selling nine half a bricks in four ways”. Even Sufjan Stevens managed to channel your religious aunt who’s really into crafts when he released a five-disc compilation of carols and originals with titles such as Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time! and Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance! Tyler, the Creator doing The Grinch soundtrack also has an appropriately menacing edge to it, although someone really messed up by not going the whole hog and casting him as the actual Grinch.
The abrasiveness of these songs marches in lockstep with the disorder of Christmas itself. The highs (pub at 9am), the lows (pub at 9am), the whole house transformed into a Beano-esque brawl of spilt drinks, puddings on fire and endless tinfoil. At the end of the day, Christmas is antisocial by nature. It’s about getting drunk, eating too much at completely incorrect times of day and a round of Articulate! ending in physical violence. It’s for that reason that the 1993 Christmas No 1 can overthrow its unfair reputation as a scourge on our ears for meeting the brief more incisively than anyone since: if you’re looking for pure goggle-eyed resilience amid the festive chaos, look no further than Mr Blobby.