Dr Catherine Tackley from the OU’s music department examines what makes certain songs a hit at Christmas time.
The official UK singles chart began in 1952, but many of the songs (as distinct from traditional Christmas carols) which remain popular at Christmas were established before that. ‘Jingle Bells’ by James Lord Pierpoint, dates back to 1857; perhaps setting a trend for ‘jingling bells’ on more recent Christmas tracks. In many of the hits on this list overtly seasonal lyrics are backed up by obvious sounds of Christmas.
Sometimes seasonal links are made mainly visually, rather than musically, as in the wintery setting for the Spice Girls’ video for ‘Goodbye’ (Christmas number one in 1998) and Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman’s duet ‘Somethin’ Stupid’ (2001). But there are also plenty of examples of chart-topping singles which don’t seem to be about Christmas at all. Recently there was strong competition for the number one spot over the festive season, fuelled by social campaigns encouraging support for singles which subvert the dominance of large corporate ventures such as X-factor.
In the video below Jon Morter talks about his successful campaign to get ‘Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ to number one ahead of X-factor winner Joe McElderry in 2009:
Christmas hits promote community harmony
Although musically very different, there is perhaps a common feature which explains the popularity of an old song like ‘Jingle Bells’, classic examples such as the BandAid charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984) and even the apparently non-festive ‘Killing in the Name’. Whether overtly ‘Christmassy’ or not, songs that get to number one at Christmas often draw on a spirit of community and togetherness. Similarly to the traditions of pantomime, these songs seek and achieve appeal across generations – perhaps individual musical tastes are abandoned for the sake of family unity - which allows Bob the Builder (2003) and even Mr Blobby (1993) to achieve pop success.
Musically, songs that are successful at Christmas often feature massed backing choirs which allude to religious choral traditions - check out the massed gospel voices backing Alexandra Burke on her rendition of Hallelujah (2008). Choirs have also achieved success in their own right – whether involving celebrities (‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’) or military wives (‘Wherever You Are’ 2011). But Christmas number ones often actively encourage participation akin to the type of informal, communal singing which can be heard at football grounds or pubs. ‘Jingle Bells’ is extremely repetitive (a characteristic of many of the most popular songs) and uses only five pitches in its chorus; the chorus of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ has similar qualities (but with six pitches) making these both relatively easy to sing along to. ‘Can We Fix It?’ by Bob the Builder achieved number one status with a simple four pitch refrain and ‘call and response’ device which involves the listener. Some take a melancholy slant on this theme, such as glam rock band Mud’s 1974 hit ‘Lonely this Christmas’, Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ (1984) and The Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ (1987), number one in Ireland. Even ‘Killing in the Name’ will forever be linked with the strength of communal action against corporate dominance.
No doubt you have your own favourite Christmas song – some of my personal favourites didn’t necessarily make number one at the time of their release but scored highly in this ‘all-time’ chart compiled by the PRS in 2012 . You may also be interested in finding out the most played Christmas songs in 2014 on TV, radio, online, bars, gyms (essentially anwhere that plays music). Recently, Brett Domino has experimented with putting all the key features of a Christmas hit into one song – see what you think!
This article was originally published on OpenLearn.
Main Photo - "Wham, Last Christmas" by Jacob Whittaker on Flikr