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December 23, 2015

Christmas(?) Music

by Ross Kitson

When I was a lad, those many yuletides ago, there were a few things that I looked forward to beyond the standard Xmas trappings of presents, crackers, trifle, and turkey. On the TV there was usually a Bond film, Xmas specials, and a Disney special—which in the pre- VCR era was the only way to see those beloved scenes from the films. And there was Xmas Top of the Pops, a great showcase of the year’s top hits and the coveted Christmas Number One.

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Genuinely, it was always a buzz in my adolescence to find out what held that annual honour—at least until the point of my teenage years when it became uncool to like ‘chart music.’ And through the Seventies and Eighties there were some iconic records at Xmas: Slade - "Merry Xmas Everyone"; Mud - "Lonely this Christmas"; Boney M - "Mary’s Boy Child"; Band Aid - "Do they Know It’s Christmas". Perhaps it floundered a little in the Nineties, when the Spice Girls managed three years running at the top spot, and Bob the Builder brought in the first Xmas of the new millennium. And even though they missed the number one spot, such great records as "Fairytale of New York", by the Pogues, "Thank God it’s Christmas" by Queen, and "Happy Xmas (War is Over)", by Jon and Yoko were great tunes that have stood the test of Xmas compilations ever since.

Yet for the last decade the number one slot at Xmas has been dominated by the singles released by the victor of the UK singing contest, the X-Factor. 7 out of the last 10 Xmas number ones have been X-Factor contestants. Don’t get me wrong—some songs were pretty OK: Alexandra Burke’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" was entertaining, and Matt Cardle didn’t totally slaughter Biffy Clyro’s "Many of Horror" (despite its re-naming)—but the blatant commercial exploitation is hardly in the Xmas spirit. Is it?

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Well those that lament the commercialisation of Xmas and the materialism that seems to get worse year on year might disagree. Maybe it’s a sign of our times that we are so enslaved to the media that the massive boost in attention to an artist that winning the X-Factor gives dominates our music purchase nationally, a throw away single with no more meaning at Xmas than to perhaps highlight how gullible folk are.

In 2009 the X-Factor winner Joe McElderry’s debut single, "The Climb" (a Miley Cyrus cover) was beaten to the Xmas number one slot in the UK by Rage Against the Machine’s "Killing in the Name". This was the culmination of a Facebook campaign to prevent the X-Factor securing the number one slot for the fifth year running, and ironically was dubbed as ‘stupid and cynical’ by high-trousered music mogul Simon Cowell. The first ever exclusively download only single to reach number one at Xmas, it hardly illustrates the Xmas spirit, but is perhaps a sobering indicator of the power of social media and a lesson that maybe the population aren’t as slavish as the media think.

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So this year, as I write this the week before the big day, the race for the UK Xmas spot is rather varied. According to the bookmakers it’s between the Xfactor winner, Louisa Johnson—and three others: Justin Bieber, NHS choir, and the Stormyz. NHS choir’s song is in support of NHS staff (of which I’m one) in face of impending contractual negotiations and comments made by the Health Secretary—and is a mash-up of Coldplay and Simon and Garfunkel. The Bieber is looking strong, and although every iota of my being screams ‘Nooooo,’ it would be a welcome reprieve from the X-Factor domination of Xmas. Stormyz is a UK Grime rap artist (apparently a sub-genre of garage hip-hop, rather than them not washing as they rap) whose single ‘Shut up’ is a re-release following his award winning at the Mobo’s.

Finally it warmed my heart to see the rather unseasonal Star Wars theme racing up the charts as an outside contender. A cultural event only slightly less lucrative than Xmas, it could sneak to the top if Bieber fans run low on pocket money, and Jedi mind tricks win through….

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For those across the pond, as of writing, Adele sits tidily at number one with ‘Hello,’ with young Mr Bieber apologising at number two with ‘Sorry.’ Perhaps not carrying the same kudos as over here, yet I hope Adele hangs onto to that top spot.

So perhaps this year I’ll lock the kids in a separate room, and settle down to the Top of the Pops special and hope for some Xmas tunes sneaking through the irrelevance, perhaps a troupe of Stormtroopers dancing to John William’s epic theme tune, or at least Coldplay, James Bay and Hozier performing their tunes whilst balloons are bounced off their heads.

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