Film analysts sometimes say that comedy is the quickest to age and the most likely to age poorly of all genres. The formula for getting a laugh is swiftly imitated until it’s painfully unfunny to sit through, and when coupled with our changing perceptions of what’s an acceptable joke topic, it’s easy for jokes to become dated and uncomfortable. Comedy is, of course, a genre in music too, but I’d argue that another style of song that follows this pattern of fading from our good graces is the Christmas song.
Christmas music ages like milk for a pretty obvious reason. From the start of the holiday season, every radio station, every music TV channel, and every shopping centre will blare out Christmas music to signal to customers that they really ought to get their festive shop on. It’s an attempt to recapture the magic of Christmas many people felt as children, and this nostalgia stops a lot of newer releases from making an impact. A Christmas song from 2016 might be nice, but you don’t link it in your mind with the fond memories of frantically unwrapping presents at the age of seven. New songs struggle to break through, so we’re left with the same songs year after year.
Of course, this is a bit of a double-edged sword, as those songs that do stick with us get pretty irritating after all that airplay. The fact that companies push their Christmas celebrations back earlier and earlier every year doesn’t help matters—I mean, do we really need to hear “Last Christmas” in November? There’s lists of beloved giftmas songs released every year, but for those with a more cynical approach to the holidays, the songs that tend to make listeners irate might be more cathartic to read about.
“Wonderful Christmastime” – Paul McCartney
I’m very reticent to put this song here, especially when another Beatle made a Christmas song I personally have a lot less fondness for. However, even I can’t deny that anyone in my company rolls their eyes whenever this song comes on the radio. It’s the repetitiveness that gets this attempt at festive cheer on people’s hitlists. Listeners hear “simply having a wonderful Christmastime” so many times during its runtime that the phrase goes beyond the realm of annoying and straight into the uncanny valley, like a word you keep using in an essay and have now written so many times that it doesn’t feel like a real word anymore. “Wonderful Christmastime” is ominous in the exact way a wholesome family festivity shouldn’t be.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – Band Aid
Charity singles are a delicate affair to get right. What’s heartfelt to one person is sickly saccharine to another, making it hard for these songs to find mass appeal without getting backlash, but their noble messaging makes many feel mean for criticising them. In recent years, though, people seem more willing to admit hatred for the original “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” of the 1980s. Since then, the genuine awareness and funds the song raised for communities affected by famine has faded in significance, replaced by the bitter taste of white-saviour-y lyrics and stereotypes that paint the entirety of Africa as a lifeless hellscape. To top it off, it’s incredibly obnoxious. The repetition designed to drill messages of generosity into listeners’ heads is agonising to hear if you’re not in the right mood. Nobody wants to be talked down to about giving to charity by millionaire popstars.
“Merry Christmas” – Ed Sheeran & Elton John
I have not heard a single nice word about this song since its creators inflicted it on the world. Uniting two of the most successful British male artists of all time, the pop voices of their respective decades, should be something everyone can get behind. Instead, though, Elton John’s collaboration with Ed Sheeran on the generically-named “Merry Christmas” has just given the impression that both artists aren’t really trying. Both artists can power entire albums to the top of the charts based on star power alone, with Sheeran in particular trying this marketing strategy with each of his recent albums. If there was ever evidence that this commercial gravity has gone to Ed’s head, it’s this piece of sonic filler. Bringing in someone as nationally beloved as Elton John can’t even save the song from its own muddled collections of festive phrases wrapped around a chorus that, no matter how often it’s heard during Christmas shopping, refuses to stick in the mind.
“Santa Baby” – Michael Buble
Michael Buble is an artist synonymous with Christmas music nowadays, and not many people have the energy to actually hate, or even strongly dislike, his many contributions to the subgenre. His cover of “Santa Baby”, however, is a different story. From renaming the song “santa buddy” as opposed to “santa baby” to insisting that the convertible his festive benefactor give him be steel blue rather than light blue, the attempts to toughen up Eartha Kitt’s playful original are nothing but embarrassing. This aversion to anything feminine results in an awkward series of changes that adds nothing to the original, and instead draws attention to the fact that the song is a clunky cover.
There’s something special about most of the songs that get a secure place within the Christmas canon, something timeless. That’s where so many of the festive songs we grimace at fall down. Whether it’s an older song that’s not aged terribly, or a recent release that tried too hard instead of relying on the authentic emotions we connect to around the holidays, don’t waste your time this season with music that doesn’t spark joy.