With Christmas Pop Music, Do We Prefer Sad or Saccharine?

The long, largely unsuccessful quest for new holiday classics

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Columbia Records

It's Christmas time, and there's every need to be afraid. For the coming weeks will see the re-emergence of that most potentially disastrous of musical forms: the Christmas pop song.

Every year, scores of artists try to pen the next festive favorite. But the results are more often turkeys than crackers: Cyndi Lauper's "Christmas Conga"… John Denver's "Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)"… Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime"… The list goes on.

And it's getting worse. Over the past 20 years, perhaps only Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" has joined the pantheon of "classic" Christmas songs. And let's be honest: Most of us probably wish that it hadn't.

David Smyth, chief pop and rock critic at the London Evening Standard (which I write for), believes that the creation of new Christmas music has become something of a dying art.

"I don't think it's something that people feel too passionately about anymore," he says. "It can be a cynical stopgap for people with an established fanbase and a way of keeping them in the public eye. Justin Bieber's just done one this year, for instance.

"As a musician at Christmas, you're working when everybody else is screwing off," says The Waitresses' Chris Butler

"There's a canon of about 20 to 30 Christmas songs that get wheeled out every year; it's the Christmas equivalent of when Easter eggs start appearing in the shops before Easter. In the UK, it's Slade's 'Merry Xmas Everybody' and Elton John's 'Step Into Christmas.' Then you have the real classics, like 'Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!' It's very difficult for new songs to become an established part of that canon."

But some people do manage it—people like Chris Butler, author of The Waitresses' 1981 hit "Christmas Wrapping". With its punky guitars and cynical lyrics, it's the modern Christmas song that it's OK to like. But when Butler penned the tune at the behest of Michael Zilkha, the flamboyant owner of ZE Records who planned to release a Christmas album featuring all his artists, he had low expectations for it.

"I remember thinking: 'What a naff idea,'" he says. "I literally finished the lyrics in the cab on the way to the studio. We thought of it as something to forget about."

The world, however, didn't forget about it. Thirty years after its release, "Christmas Wrapping" can still be heard on the radio during the holiday season. (Indeed, Butler holds a competition every year in which he donates $100 to the Hoboken library in the name of the first person to contact him on hearing "Christmas Wrapping" on the radio.)

Another relatively modern song that's become a festive favourite is The Pogues' 1987 "Fairytale of New York." A bittersweet ballad between Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, the song is the ultimate tear-in-your-beer Christmas anthem, equal parts sad and uplifting. Unlike Butler's last-minute effort, the song had a more protracted writing process, as its co-author Jem Finer explains.

"Shane MacGowan and I had spoken about writing a Christmas song, so I went off and wrote one," Finer says. "But before showing it to Shane, I showed it to my wife, who basically told me it was a load of rubbish. She liked the tune but said the lyrics were absolute dross. So I said, 'Right then, if you're so smart, you tell me a better storyline.' She came up with the basic storyline that's in the song: A couple who are down on their luck, and the man going out and wasting all the money on gambling escapades and getting pissed up."

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Rick Pearson is a music critic for the London Evening Standard. More

Rick Pearson is a music critic for the London Evening Standard. He has also written for The Telegraph, Rock'n'Reel and MOJO. When he's not reporting on gigs, Rick busies himself by running a monthly folk night, Instant Karma, and following the fortunes of his struggling soccer team, Crystal Palace.

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