There is probably no chart position more fought over than the Christmas number one. This year, it looks like LadBaby will steal their fourth chart win in a row — a new record if successful — with a song featuring Elton John and Ed Sheeran. But what does it really take to propel a song to the coveted spot during another COVID Christmas? And what makes for good Christmas music — the kind that we want to consume throughout the festive season?
We know Christmas music when we hear it, but it’s not always obvious what features (if any) it needs to have to pass the yuletide test. Plenty of explicitly Christmas-themed songs will have certain musical characteristics, even though they’re always optional. These include a major key, an accessible pitch range and a moderate tempo, making them both easier to sing and easier on the ear. Certain sounds, too, like sleigh bells, the celeste, the glockenspiel, and a choir also signal the holiday. For over a month, this music is ubiquitous: people do not necessarily pay for or try to hear it, but it’s there anyway, like acoustic wallpaper.
The Christmas blues
The fact that it’s hard to escape Christmas music might account for the eye-rolling that greets it every year. It’s understandable that we might recoil from the sound of yet more Slade and sleigh bells in the context of overflowing car parks and endless queues.
Sometimes the music’s idealised qualities can even instil melancholy. Hearing a romanticised version of family and togetherness can provoke a keener sense of their absence, and lock out listeners who cannot join in the reindeer games.
The artificial or fantastical side to the music can be even more off-putting given the commercialised climate in which these sentiments are shared. The very idea of chasing the top spot on the chart appears in some ways disconnected from the “true meaning” of Christmas. It suggests competitive zeal and commercial reward rather than communal values and selflessness. This tension might be one reason why several performers have hitched their chart bid to charitable causes.
A festive chart rebellion
Yet for all the ways it is easy to tire of Christmas songs’ excesses, to many people it matters what music we should value at this time of year. People notice the music’s political and ideological trajectory and can mount a rebellion when they feel that the falseness has gone too far.
Look no further than the successful campaign in 2009 to install Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name at the top of the UK chart and prevent yet another X Factor single from being number one. It was everything Christmas songs are not, or at least not supposed to be (although there is certainly some form of protest, albeit of a less revolutionary kind, in John Lennon’s Happy Xmas and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas).
It indicated that some people care whether the number one position goes to another schmaltzy ballad. I suspect listeners did not need an excuse to rebel against X Factor’s then-monopoly, but the fact that the campaign happened at Christmas suggests that the rebels found a cause.
The power of pop
This upset, however, is a departure from the norm. One has only to look at the list of Christmas number ones to see on the one hand their variety, but on the other, how they gravitate towards a particular type of popular music. In trying to define pop, the rock writer Simon Frith considered it to be what is left when one strips away rock, country and the other venerable popular genres.
The leftover category of “pop”, loosely defined, is designed to appeal to everyone: often family-orientated, musically conservative, professionally produced, unobtrusive, and a conduit for cliché and commonplace emotional states like “love, loss, jealousy”. How Frith characterises this residual class of music resonates strongly with typical Christmas music.
As he also points out, such music, despite its purported banality, can be put to affecting use. Its participatory quality and way of gathering memories and associations lend themselves to ritual and strong personal resonances.
These factors, among others, might help explain why we gravitate towards such music at this time of year. Looking at the influence of Victorian Britain on modern Christmas celebrations, the musicologist Sheila Whiteley highlights the importance of family (both literal and the wider idea), as well as a “utopia of shared values”. Perhaps this sense of sharedness pushes the significance of Christmas week’s number one beyond that of whatever is at the top of the charts at any other time of the year.
The number one place is the result of a popularity contest among music fans. While the metrics have changed across the decades, the principle of success has not. Chart positions represent a ranking arrived at nationally, suggesting a consensus, even if you were not among those who supported the winner.
Perhaps something is appealing in the perception that people — without necessarily meaning to — have sent something to the top of a public list, indicating that many others enjoy it. It hints at the social and communal.
Perhaps the specific holiday also multiplies these factors and makes them that bit more important. It appears to represent consensus at a time when animosities and hostilities are to be set aside (in theory at least) and when a social rapprochement descends like light snow for a couple of days. In particular, our need for a sense of togetherness cannot be underestimated amid COVID restrictions and reduced social interaction. The feeling of common consent, tacit agreement and shared sensibilities appeals more keenly when people perceive its absence elsewhere.