In this week's festive edition of Pop is Not A Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood dissects the state of the Christmas Number One over the past few years and asks: does anybody actually care about that coveted chart moment anymore?
Remember the days when a Christmas Number One was a pop artist’s most cherished marker of success? When there was a beaming, unmatched pride that came with ringing in the festive season with a song everybody in Britain would be carolling along to?
Those days weren’t so long ago now. In fact, back in 2014, Ben Haenow (who now?) became the last earnest X Factor grad to shoot to the top of yuletide chart with his cover of OneRepublic’s ‘Something I Need’. It might’ve been tripe, but it was probably the last time a large majority of the country banded together behind a Christmas single.
But that show’s presence, domineering to the point of being damaging, played a huge part in tarnishing the legacy of the Christmas Number One. I’m not old enough to remember them, but it’s hard to envision festive classics from Boney M (‘Mary’s Boy Child’) and Shakin’ Steves (‘Merry Christmas Everyone’) – as well as the inimitable ‘Always On My Mind’ by the Pet Shop Boys – occupying the same cultural space as a track by a reality TV show star destined for anonymity just a few short years later. That sea of samey covers (a few stand-out contributions vocally from Alexandra Burke and Leona Lewis aside) has effectively sprinkled a Grinch-like spell over the Christmas top spot. I guess now we’re really feeling bitter about it.
It’s no wonder that, in the year 2018, that prize means fuck all. But how did we go from treating that achievement as a real musical moment to casting it off like it was just a title bestowed on a song that smashed the chart any other week of the year?
Alongside The X factor fucking things up (while also gifting us Harry Styles and Little Mix – thanks for those, Simon!), it comes down to the way the rise of streaming changed our loyalty to artists.
True, it’s become easier for individual songs to have their moment in the pop spotlight when a crowd of people dig it (that stems from the numbing effect of excessive radio play), but when a song’s one-off success rests on the feverish support of the public – especially when said song comes from someone nobody really knows – the route to hitting that holy mark changes.
Spending 99p on a song is considered an admirable investment in an age when we can realistically listen to any song for free anyway, and it’s strange to think there was once a time when X Factor winners were shifting a million singles a week. Band Aid 20’s revival of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, in 2004, was the last physical single to achieve that same feat. In both cases, the country had a cause to stand behind – even if it was just getting that year’s X Factor champion their de facto prize – and the push of major labels like SyCo played a key part in that.
Now, those campaigns to reach the top spot feel like an old-fashioned tactic nobody but Katy Perry stans care about, and just as those fell out of relevancy in the wider pop conversation, so too have they started to feel tacky and unnecessary around Christmas time. We’re hardy, discerning listeners now, not charitable ones. The sheer amount of killer pop music out there means we’re more likely to favour a song we actually enjoy rather than one that labels are telling us should soar to the top with our support without any kind of contention.
In 2016, when Clean Bandit’s ‘Rockabye’ (a stonker of a reggaeton pop single about a single mother working to feed her kids) earned the once coveted slot, it truly felt like the festive spirit that formerly imbued the charts once a year had finally fizzled out.
Collectively, the British public rallied behind something else: a song we loved, rather than the stuff people wanted us to love, or something with sleigh bells on it. It was the UK enjoying out-of-season summer pop in the midst of a bleak midwinter.
We’re losing something in that though, aren’t we? With an anti-festive pop slate that the general public hasn’t been subjected to since The Beatles dominated the winter charts throughout the 1960s, maybe it’s time we re-hang the tinsel across the UK Top 40, and demand more Christmassy bangers from the artists we love. This year’s likely winner Ariana Grande – who’s set to have her seventh week at number one with ‘Thank U, Next’ – has a Mariah-standard festive bop under her sleeve called ‘Santa Tell Me’. Maybe for 2019, we can properly bring that banger out of the closet, and help a new song enter the Great Festive Songbook for once. God, Mary and the Baby Jesus know that a shake up is certainly overdue.