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Why Christmas Songs Are Seldom Hits

When you hear Wham’s “Last Christmas” and Jackson 5’s “I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus” blasting from your car’s radio stereo, you know Christmas is coming. If you think about the familiarity you have with these Christmas tunes playing on radio waves year after year, you may wonder why Christmas songs are seldom hits. There is rarely a new Christmas hit song.

The Most Recent Christmas Hits

According to research by the Performing Rights Society for Music, the most recent song to break into the top 20 most-played Christmas tracks is Cliff Richard’s “Millenium Prayer”. The song was released in the year 2000. A newer but more obscure Christmas song, “Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)” by The Darkness was released in 2003. While the other most-played song is “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses from 1982. These hit Christmas songs all date back at least a decade.

You may wonder why does it take so long for new Christmas songs to become a hit? According to Paul Carr, professor in popular music analysis at the University of Wales, many of us, regardless of our generation, listen to Christmas songs that came through from the early seventies.

It may be easy to attribute the older Christmas songs to be of better quality with more memorable tunes. But Carr argues that isn’t the case. He thinks that there is a generational effect where we inherit well-loved Christmas carols from our parents. We pass on the records we listened to our children, and they pass on to their kids. Old Christmas songs seem to endure due to this cyclic impact on generations.

Nostalgia in Christmas Songs

“White Christmas”, which is the biggest-selling festive song of all time brings back nostalgia, and the lyrics remind us of Christmasses of the past. Alexandra Lamont, the senior lecturer in music psychology at Keele University said that all Christmas pop songs are about nostalgia.

Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist from Boston’s Berklee College of Music analysed the elements of the ultimate Christmas song in a research commissioned by British shopping centre chain Intu in 2017.

He analysed the UK Spotify charts for the week of December 25. Of the top 200 songs, 78 of them were Christmas or holiday-related. These songs all contained lyrics about the home, being in love, reminiscing lost love, parties, Santa or reindeer, snow, coldness, religion, and peace on Earth. 49 percent of the songs featured sleigh bells, 95 percent were recorded in a major key, and the median tempo of the tracks was 115 beats per minute.

Creating the Perfect Christmas Song

The perfect Christmas song, based on the recipe provided by Bennett, “Love’s Not Just For Christmas” was created by songwriters Steve Anderson and Harriet Green. However, the song did not even enter the charts, let alone the festive Christmas canon. Listeners are not rational, therefore there is no magical formula to making the perfect Christmas song. Adam Behr, lecturer in contemporary and popular music at Newcastle University thinks we like a sense of authenticity and nostalgia when it comes to Christmas songs.

Darren Sproston, professor of music at the University of Chester thinks that a song doesn’t need to sound Christmassy in order for it to do well. For instance, both Leona Lewis and Coldplay, whose Christmas songs are included in Bennett’s top 78 Christmas tracks list, do not sound Christmassy. They take longer to achieve familiarity as fans pass on their nostalgic love of a song or artist but could over time become a favourite Christmas tune.

Bennett’s research found one artiste who bucked the trend - Michael Buble. Of the 78 Christmas songs that made it to the top of the tracks of 2016, 25 were released after the year 2000 and 11 of them belonged to Buble. All but one song came from his 2011 album “Simply Christmas”.

Modern Christmas Hits

New Christmas songs are often modern rearrangements of a Christmas classic such as Band-Aid’s “Do they Know It’s Christmas”. According to Carr, record labels sometimes just release the same record, and other times they do different versions and repackage it. The record industry knows how to manipulate nostalgia. As for Michael Buble, he does different versions that are also nostalgic and heavily influenced by classic icons such as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr.

There is no reason why an original track cannot become a Christmas classic in the future. The only obstacle is time. A new Christmas song needs years in order for it to percolate and enter the festive canon. In 2019, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” reached number one in the US for the first time, 25 years after it was released.

If radio stations and record label bigwigs, who are the gatekeepers of the radio waves decide to play new Christmas songs, then there is a chance for artists like Ariana Grande to come up with a Christmas hit in the future.

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