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.

"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."

When Finer and MacGowan got together, MacGowan took the melody from the first song and the storyline from the second. He then rewrote the lyrics in his own inimitable style and transposed the story to New York.

It's notable that both these songs share a sense of sadness. "Christmas Wrapping" finds the female protagonist singing, "Merry Christmas, but I think I'll miss this one this year." "Fairytale of New York" goes even further, with MacColl telling MacGowan, "You're a bum, you're a punk, you're an old slut on junk … Merry Christmas, you arse, I pray God it's our last.". 'Tis the season to be jolly, indeed.

When it comes to our festive songs, then, do we prefer realism to rockin' around a Christmas tree? There are certainly some examples to suggest this is the case, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Merry Xmas (War Is Over)," Band Aid's "Heal The World," and Joni Mitchell's "River."

Butler says he was simply writing from experience: "As a musician at Christmas, you're working when everybody else is screwing off. The whole thing was just a hump." For Finer, though, it was more of a conscious decision. "Christmas can be a very difficult time," he says. "It puts pressure on people's circumstances—both romantic and economic. In terms of the way in which we wrote in The Pogues, we always felt that we had to confront those issues."

Still, all great Christmas songs need a happy ending. In "Christmas Wrapping", it comes when the protagonist pops out to the grocery store to buy cranberries and finds the man of her dreams waiting in the shopping aisle. In "Fairytale of New York", it comes in the redemptive sounds of the NYPD choir. And in "Wonderful Christmastime," it comes when McCartney finally stops singing. "You have to have some kind of redemption in it," Finer says. "Otherwise, it's just terminally depressing."

So, where should we be looking for the next Christmas classic? A lot of the best work is now happening at the fringes. Quirky indie types She & Him has released the gorgeous A Very She & Him Christmas, while Kate Bush has come out of hibernation with her brilliant wintry album 50 Words For Snow.

Neither is likely to join the canon of classic Christmas works, perhaps, but Finer says the door is always open for new material. "There's always room for another classic," he says. "It just needs someone to write it—that's the difficult bit."