There’s an interesting article over at Slate suggesting that the holiday canon is closed. New original Christmas songs simply aren’t becoming big hits. I think that’s partly correct, but the author of the article, Chris Klimek, is at a loss to explain why.
As he asserts, there are no new Christmas songs that have caught on massively since 1989 with the sole exception of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” in 1994. With due respect, I think that’s not quite right, but the counterexamples are all still shockingly old, to the extent that they kind of prove his point. There’s Amy Grant’s “Grown-Up Christmas List” from her second Christmas album in 1992, a terrific song that I’ve been hearing covers for in the last few years; the covers all suck, each and every one, but the song itself has earned its place in the canon. The Wilson sisters put out “Hey Santa!” in 1993, which has been pretty popular. But I have to admit, there’ve been barely any truly new Christmas songs adopted since then. There’s “The Christmas Shoes”, which was also from the ’90s but shouldn’t count anyway because it sucks on toast and nobody should ever play it. Heck, even Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song is from the ’90s. I guess there’s “Where Are You Christmas?” from the Grinch movie, which is sort of okay but just has too much country-vocal sound to me; it’s the only one I can think of from this century, and even that’s sort of iffy on a pedantic technicality. (Whatever; I count 2000 as the 21st century.)
So what gives?
Well first, music isn’t what it used to be. I don’t mean it’s gotten worse. It’s enjoyed and created and processed a whole different way. When my parents were younger, department stores used to put out Christmas album compilations by the day’s best singers, and these were singers of legend who could perform live without difficulty. Those albums remain among the best ever made. It’s no surprise to me that most of our Christmas classics that weren’t hymns come from the era of big bands. The entire world of entertainment has changed radically since then. Want to understand how much? Watch Holiday Inn and White Christmas. Music was different then. But as Klimek notes, even lots of cheesy songs from the ’70s and ’80s are counted as canon, though practically nothing from the ’90s on.
One of the complications I’ll readily point to is the changes that have come over pop radio. It used to be that most pop stations were top 100 (yet still with enough variety that they played hits from a few years back) and played the top 40 more often. Now they’re all top 40 and play the top 10 almost nonstop. This used to be where you’d hear Christmas music a lot, but these days they don’t play it as much; and small wonder, because now we have dedicated Christmas stations. But those dedicated Christmas stations mostly play a lot of older stuff, and mix in very little of the newer music; what new stuff they do play is mostly new covers of older songs.
(On that note, I might add that I loathe Michael Bublé’s new Christmas album. It’s nothing personal. His voice just doesn’t quite hit the right spot for me and I don’t like what he did with any of the covers.)
Basically, new songs that could become classics aren’t getting exposure anymore. That’s most of it, as far as I can tell. There’s no venue for an awesome new Christmas song to truly go viral. And that’s what it’s about: All our favorite Christmas songs, and even a lot of our favorite newer recordings, got big because they got huge word of mouth and huge airplay, and people passed them around.
But then, Klimek throws in some examples that make me wonder if some of the issue isn’t just how badly strapped we are for good artists anymore. He says the old classics came from artists recording songs at the top of their game, even when those songs were mediocre, and wonders why that doesn’t hold true for newer artists who are peaking. There’s a simple reason for that: The mediocre music of the ’80s was worlds better than mediocre music of today. QED.
For example, Klimek mentions that Lady GaGa and Coldplay released Christmas songs that were kind of lousy, but doesn’t get why they didn’t catch on. Being kind of lousy does that. Lady GaGa’s release of “Christmas Tree” was in 2008 but she really hit it big in 2009, and frankly while she’s quite talented her appeal is not as wide as it might be. Coldplay’s is even less so. Brad Paisley gets a nod for a 2006 single, but dude, that’s country. Why was he invited to this discussion? And Klimek says a 2007 song by the New Pornographers was quite good, without even grasping the fact that 1) they’re not actually a household name, and 2) no one would take a Christmas song seriously by a group with that name. Seriously, what the heck were you thinking, Chris?
Oh, and there was a Justin Bieber song called “Mistletoe” in 2011. Justin Bieber’s stylings are not suited to the catchy singalong format required of a Christmas song. They just aren’t. And again, his appeal isn’t so universal.
Kelly Clarkson has a new Christmas CD out and I think I might have heard the new song from it, but it won’t become a classic because Kelly—who has always been extremely hit or miss for me—is oversinging it and the lyrics aren’t that easy to pick up. Klimek thinks maybe this one could get a little traction for a few years at best; I think he’s overstating the case. Leona Lewis? Don’t make me laugh; her voice is overrated and she sings like she believes the exact opposite.
The selections he laments not getting enough attention get increasingly bizarre from there. The Killers may have put out good singles for quite a few years now, but they’re a niche band. Come on! And is a Stephen Colbert CD full of witty satire really going to get people of all kinds singing along merrily? Ariana Grande has a new CD, but if you don’t watch Nickelodeon or Disney or whatever channel she’s on you probably haven’t heard of her (I only know of her from this year’s Macy’s parade), and since she’s not a household name herself her original song probably isn’t going anywhere no matter how good it is.
All that being said, I think Klimek has a valid point; he just has some really lousy examples of songs that should have made the cut, and I think he’s wrong about the time frame. This trend has been going on since longer than the mid-’90s; there aren’t really a ton of widely known new Christmas songs that were spawned from the ’70s onward either, when you think about it. The pace of adoption has clearly been slowing for quite a long time. Music has changed, and the way we listen to it has changed, and the way it’s brought to our attention has changed. We have the classics we have today because most of them were penned in an era when they had a chance to stick. But mind you, for every Rudolph there’s also some obscure one-off song nobody remembers unless it was on an album they heard growing up. It may simply be a numbers game, and the numbers no longer favor new classics.
But I’ll be honest: I don’t see Kelly Clarkson being the one to break the streak.