Pop Goes The Tinsel

It’s a question that has plagued mankind since 1994. Is East 17’s Stay Another Day a Christmas song? Or just a song that gets played and played and played at Christmas? What about The Power Of Love? What about 2 Become 1? We knuckled down into the musical theory of festive pop to figure everything out once and for all.

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In film circles the conversation tends to focus around Die Hard. A certain type of pub bore will tell you – insist – that it’s a Christmas film and that it should be considered alongside It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street as a festive classic. “It’s set on Christmas Eve!” they’ll say. “He writes Now I’ve Got A Machine Gun Ho-Ho-Ho on a guy’s sweater! The corpse is wearing a santa hat!”

Others will tell you that it’s a straight-up action movie that just so happens to be set at Christmas. But once you start tugging at that thread, the whole ironic sweater starts to unravel. What about Trading Places? What about Home Alone? What about Love Actually? All of them are set at Christmas, but they arguably have more in common with Brewster’s Millions, Tom and Jerry and Notting Hill respectively than they do with an out-and-out Christmas movie like The Santa Clause, or Elf.

The only concrete conclusion we can draw from the whole debate is this: our rules for determining what constitutes a Christmas film are so incredibly poorly drawn, that they are not fit for purpose.

Things get even worse when the conversation turns to music. Our collective ability to articulate what constitutes a Christmas song is, frankly, an embarrassment. Ask around and see what people consider to be a Christmas song and be prepared to be appalled. There is no real rhyme or reason to it. It could be that something someone remembers from their school disco. A song their parents would put on in the car on a trip to visit family cross-country. Absolutely anything released between November 1st and the end of the year.

The lightning rod for this argument is often East 17’s Stay Another Day. It appears on countless Christmas compilations, is a fixture of festive playlists, and every December the East 17 boys receive a nice fat royalty cheque for repeated radio plays of it (the sort of money that Steam, Deep or House Of Love could only dream of making them…)

And yet, at face value, the song sounds like it’s just about a break-up – which isn’t desperately festive. (Anyone who has read up on the subject may also be aware that Tony Mortimer says he actually wrote it about his brother’s suicide – which is even less so).

Can it really just be because they are wearing fur-lined jackets and there’s a shitload of snow in the video? If that’s the case we’d have to consider Never Had A Dream Come True by S Club 7 a Christmas classic too. Not to mention Heartbeat by Steps. Both fine pop songs, but about as Christmassy as Caprese salad.

So, to settle the matter once and for all, we analysed dozens and dozens of Christmas classics to figure out what sits at the very heart of a festive song.

Only then can we consign this tedious annual argument to the lead-lined toxic vault of 2016.

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The Fight Before Christmas

Before we roll up our sleeves up and get elbow deep in theory, let’s dispense with some of the more basic arguments.

 

1) To Be A Christmas Song, It Needs To Have The Word ‘Christmas’ In The Title

While it’s true to say that almost any song with the word ‘Christmas’ in the title could constitute a Christmas song, if that is our only determining factor then a number of indisputably Christmassy songs quickly fall by the wayside. (Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! and Frosty The Snowman to pick three very obvious examples. Fairytale Of New York, Little Saint Nick and Mistletoe And Wine to pick three more.)

In fact, of the ten best-selling Christmas singles, only half of them have the word “Christmas” in the title.

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Therefore, a titular mention of Christmas – though useful to consider – cannot be our sole consideration.

 

2) To Be A Christmas Song, It Needs To Mention Christmas In The Lyrics

Again, this is a handy rule of thumb to work to but there are a number of songs which are unquestionably Christmassy that don’t specifically mention Christmas by name. Winter Wonderland is about a scenic, snowy paradise. Sleigh Ride is about unconventional transport and good company. Both A Spaceman Came Travelling and A Child Is Born are about the nativity itself, but Christmas isn’t directly referred to in either.

To further confuse matters, you then have songs like 2 Become 1, The Power Of Love and Stay Another Day which have – for whatever reason – become virtually synonymous with Christmas despite not mentioning winter, the weather outside or virgin births.

So lyrics alone are not enough either.

 

3) Christmas Number Ones Are De Facto Christmas Songs

The Christmas Number One is perhaps the least helpful measure of whether or not a song can be deemed to be Christmassy. For though it does plenty to boost the festive clout of some songs on the fence (the aforementioned 2 Become 1, The Power Of Love, Stay Another Day) the last actual-Christmas song to become Christmas Number One was Band Aid 20 in 2004.

This is not a modern trend either. If you take a look back at the last 50 years of Christmas Number Ones, only ten of them are unquestionably Christmassy (Merry Xmas Everybody, Mary’s Boy Child, Do They Know It’s Christmas?), maybe five that could be contested as possibly Christmassy (There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma, Only You, Stay Another Day) leaving a whopping 35 that are totally devoid of any festive spirit whatsoever (Day Tripper, Don’t You Want Me, Sound Of The Underground).

Furthermore, some of the songs that we associate most deeply with Christmas never actually topped the charts. If the Number One was the only yardstick we used then Bob The Builder’s Can We Fix It? would have to be considered more Christmassy than Wham’s Last Christmas; Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name would be four times as festive as Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday; and Shayne Ward’s That’s My Goal would have more right to identify as a seasonal classic than Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You.

Which is palpable nonsense.

Look at the best-selling Christmas Number Ones. Only three of them are actually Christmassy.

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It’s clear that there’s more to the Christmas song than can be summed up in a single sentence. So, to get to the bottom of this, we’re going to have to look harder.

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Step Into Christmas Theory

Broadly speaking, there are three main types of Christmas song:
– The Carol
– The American Standard
– The Pop Song

This is not an exhaustive categorisation, and there is often a bit of overlap between the three.

O Holy Night (a French carol, written in the 1840s) is regularly covered and performed by American artists as a modern pop ballad; Michael Bublé makes an annual killing by giving his pop-tinged takes on jazz standards; and there is a modern fad for choirs to turn pop songs into four-part a cappella works.

But for the purposes of over-analysing an East 17 song, this will do.

Let’s look at each in turn.

 

Carols

It is hard to drill down into the specific details of carols because, despite them being the most widely known of all the Christmas songs, so many different versions of them exist. Some of them were adapted from pre-existing melodies (Good King Wenceslas, O Christmas Tree, Joy To The World) and the origins of others are uncertain.

One of the few things we can know with any real degree of accuracy about carols is their tonality – but that’s as good a place to start as any. So we took twenty well-known carols at random and looked at the types of tonal patterns they used.

Carols

The standouts were Carol Of The Bells (minor key; moody and brooding), We Three Kings and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (which, while close to being in minor keys, are technically in Aeolian mode) – but, overwhelmingly, most Christmas carols are in a major key (a key that is traditionally considered to be bright, jubilant and happy).

Another thing we can look at is time signatures, as they are generally standardised across all the various different arrangements. Those same twenty carols line up like this:

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As you’d expect, 4/4 is by far the most common time signature present – but it’s interesting to see both 3/4 and 6/8 represented so highly here.

As a number of our best known carols have their origins in Central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries (the same time and place where the waltz became fashionable; the same time and place that the tradition of Christmas trees went international) it’s no surprise that a significant percentage of them feature time signatures with a one-two-three count.

The final thing we know about carols is that they were predominantly arranged for choirs to sing. Usually that means four-part harmony, with perhaps some sort of light keyboard accompaniment. So we’ve got a rough sense of the instrumentation used when performing them.

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In and of itself, not hugely informative, but a solid foundation on which to build.

 

American Standards

We suffer a similar sort of issue with the American standard (albeit to a lesser extent) as songs from this era were frequently performed by multiple artists, each arranging the song to suit their particular style and vocal range.

 

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However, we can start to get a little more specific here as definitive versions and recordings of these songs do tend to emerge: either an original recording from which all others take their cue, or a particular cover that it is so popular it becomes the standard bearer (so Dean Martin is the go-to guy for Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!; Eartha Kitt for Santa Baby; Nat King Cole for The Christmas Song etc)

If we cherry-pick these definitive versions, we can begin to delve a little deeper into the specifics.

Standards

Once again, major keys are the dominant force here – so it’s becoming increasingly clear that major keys are going to play an important part in determining if a song is suitably festive enough to be described as Christmassy.

We can also see that the songs tend to cluster around certain keys. The little three-note cluster around C/Db/D accounts for over half of the versions we studied; Db Major in particular cropping up much more than one might reasonably expect.

This is not because Db Major is an inherently festive key. What’s more likely is that vocal ranges which naturally suit the key of Db Major are the same sorts of vocal ranges that we most closely associate with Christmas songs.

With the time signatures too we can see a bit of a hangover from the tradition of carols.

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Again, we’ve not struck on anything definitive here, but it’s all worth bearing in mind.

 

Pop Songs

Then we reach the pop song; the crux of the conversation. Thankfully, pop songs we can study much more accurately because the majority of them are performed and recorded by the same people who wrote them – meaning that the definitive artists are generally easier to determine.

Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas; Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody; Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday – these are songs we can really get our teeth into.

PopSongs

 

Looking at the very basics we again see that major keys are pretty much essential (A Spaceman Came Travelling by Chris de Burgh being the sole exception here) and that A Major and D Major in particular appear to be creeping into the big leagues.

And, again with the time signatures, a three-count does seem to appear more regularly in Christmas songs than it does in straight-up January-to-November pop.

PopSongsTimeSig

12/8 is pretty much the perfect compromise between a four-count and a three-count – giving a subtle nod to the German/Austrian waltz tradition, while still managing to keep a radio-friendly beat. You don’t see it a huge amount in pop music normally (the vast majority of pop is in straight 4/4) but 12/8 is what gives Fairytale Of New York its jiggish quality when then band kicks in; and it’s also what stops The Darkness’s Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) from sounding just like any of their other non-festive songs.

(The only person sticking to the more traditional 6/8 count? No surprises… it’s Cliff Richard!)

A quick glance down the Top 40 at any point of the year wouldn’t show 20% of the songs in 12/8 – so this looks to be a fairy significant component too.

We’ll combine these totals to get a better reading of what this all means in a second – but as we’re looking mainly at pop music, it would be sensible to really pull these ones apart and scrutinise them in much greater detail.

 

Tempo

Tempo is the fancy name for the song’s speed; the pace at which you’d tap your foot along to it, if you’re so inclined. It’s measured in beats per minute (bpm) with slow songs having a lower bpm, and faster songs a higher one.

This is how our selection stacks up.

PopSongsTempo

There’s quite an even spread here. Slower, more contemplative numbers like Lonely This Christmas by Mud can happily sit side-by-side with faster bops like Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas without losing any of their essential festivity.

What we should look for then are clusters, and we can see there are a couple them around the 90-100bpm range and the 140-150bpm range. Might prove to be useful when whipping up our model.

 

The Band/Artist Make-Up

What about the personnel involved? What sort of people create proper Christmas hits?

First, let’s look at solo artists v groups:

Groups

 

Adding this to the fact that carols are often exclusively sung by choirs (ie, groups) and American standards are usually sung by solo artists, this looks like it will end up as a fairly straight split. The number of people on your record seems to have no real bearing on its Christmas standing either way.

But what about gender balance?

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These figures only account for the people as listed artists (either the solo performer whose name is on the record; or full-time members of any band) and not any session musicians who may have performed on the recordings.

Also, we have treated each iteration of the Band Aid line-up as it if was a separate band – so Bono is counted multiple times in this, but so are Bananarama, which kind of cancels him out.

Besides, the difference it would make would be slight anyway as it appears that Christmas songs are a gargantuan sausage-fest.

 

Instrumentation

Sometimes you don’t need to hear words to know that what you’re listening to is a Christmas song. Stick on the first five seconds of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, and most people could tell you that it’s a Christmas song. Is that anything to do with the orchestration of these songs?

PopSongsInstrumentationPercussion, more than anything, seems to be key here. Not only do sleigh bells appear to be as popular a feature in a festive pop song as piano, but drums appear in every single one of our twenty selected tracks.

That may not seem like a hugely significant detail, as drums (or a synthesised beat) are present in the vast majority of pop records. But when it comes to Christmas records, there are a number of songs that many people associate with Christmas which don’t feature a drum track.

Only You by the Flying Pickets was Christmas No.1 in 1983 and was sung completely a cappella. Caravan Of Love by the Housemartins was kept off the Christmas top spot in 1986 by Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite, but was a huge seasonal hit nonetheless. You could possibly hear the occasional snare brush in White Christmas it if you really strained your ears but it’s difficult to hear if there is anything in those old recordings anyway.

The other stand-out component here is the inclusion of a choir. As for the type of choir, there seems to be a slight edge for children’s choirs (appearing alongside Wizzard, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and The Darkness) – but, really, any will help.

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The Festive Test

We have enough then to start working out what components help to make up a definitively Christmas song. Combining our carols, our standards and our pop songs, this is how they turn out.

TotalsKeys

 

– Major keys are need for a joyous sound (A Major is particularly good; with D Major and Db Major pretty close behind)
– A potential three-count (a 3/4, 6/8 or 12/8) helps to invoke the classic Central European traditions of the holiday
– Ideally you want a tempo between 90-100bpm or 140-150bpm – depending on whether you want to be dancey or sentimental
– For full Christmas effect, you want the song performed by either a man, or a group of men
– Stuff your band with piano, sleighbells, chimes, choirs (and perhaps give your drummer the day off)
– Include direct mentions of Christmas wherever possible, but references to winter or the holiday season will do in a pinch

Armed with this knowledge, we can start to make our judgements.

 

The Power Of Love – Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Key: F minor – BAD
When your song is in a key that is so un-Christmassy it’s rivaled by a rather obscure modal scale that did the lion’s share of its business back in the 16th century, it doesn’t bode hugely well for you…

Time Signature: 4/4 – NOT GREAT
Standard. Doesn’t help; doesn’t hinder.

Tempo: 62bpm – NOT GREAT
Slower than even the most forlorn and ponderous of Christmas songs (Lonely This Christmas by Mud; White Christmas by Bing Crosby; Blue Christmas by Elvis) The Power Of Love is a real plodder. At 62bpm it tests the very limit of what we consider Christmassy.

Group Make-Up: Five Men – GOOD
Finally, some good news for Frankie and the boys.

Lyrics: Love, Vampires, Claws, Flames, Tongues – BAD
Christmas is supposed to be a time where love and goodwill are expressed. But though the lyrics are nominally about that, there is a distinctly Halloween feel to some of the imagery employed.

Instrumentation: String-heavy; chorus tambourine; no choir – BAD
A very lush but static orchestration which doesn’t really move with the sort of joy, speed and deftness we really crave from a Christmas song. The tambourine in chorus could arguably mimic the sound of sleigh bells, but it is so slow it sounds like the sleigh is being operated by someone on the brink of death.

Verdict: NOT CHRISTMASSY

There is absolutely nothing about the song that is even remotely Christmassy. The only reason we consider this song to be a Christmas classic is because of its release date (late November) and the promotional video (which depicts the nativity story). We have been duped.

 

2 Become 1 – The Spice Girls

Key: F# Major – MIXED
Not a wildly popular key, but it shares a home with Judy Garland’s Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and the Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick – so it has Christmas chops.

Time Signature: 4/4 – NOT GREAT
If only the Spice Girls hadn’t ignored the great traditions of 18th Century Europe, they could have been on to a real winner here. A shame.

Tempo: 72bpm – NOT IDEAL
It might be perfect for swaying and sloppily french-kissing with someone at the end of your office Christmas party (an essential part of the festive season) but it’s a touch too slow to be perfect.

Group Make-Up: Five Women – BAD
The Ronettes are really the only sole female group to cut any real sway in the Christmas music market – who the Spice Girls tried to cover and claim as their own. However, unless they’re singing as part of a choir on someone else’s record, girl groups aren’t statistically Christmassy.

Instrumentation: String-heavy, classical guitar solo – BAD
Without any bells, chimes, choirs or anything else recognisably Christmassy in the arrangement, the closest Christmas song we could charitably compare it to is Bing Crosby’s recording of I’ll Be Home For Christmas – which makes use of the same strings and classical guitar combo, but you’ll no doubt agree: it’s a bit of a stretch.

Lyrics: Love, rubber johnnies, the sexual act – MIXED
Evergreen topics for a song,  the theme of safe-sex is supposed to be a year-round message, not just a seasonal one. Emma Bunton would be extremely disappointed in you if you only used sensible contraception over Christmas. Be a little bit wiser, baby.

Verdict: NOT CHRISTMASSY

There’s not even any snow in the video. It’s just cool breezes, long coats and the occasional bodywarmer. They didn’t even try.

 

Stay Another Day – East 17

Key: D Major – GOOD
The boys are off to a great start – sharing a key with Wizzard, Wham! The Pogues and more.

Time Signature: 4/4 – NOT GREAT

Tempo: 74bpm – NOT GREAT
Perhaps the reason we’re so unsure about these songs is because they’re all so slow? Perhaps we’re crying out for a proper Christmas ballad that doesn’t quite exist, so we’re trying to force these ones?

Group Make-Up: Four Men – GOOD
Even in their various other incarnations (without Tony Mortimer; with Robbie Craig; Brian Harvey both in and out) they’ve got a good group dynamic for Christmas music.

Instrumentation: Piano, pizzicato stings, choir, no drums, bells
It is here where East 17 really come into their own with the Christmas goods. They may have overlooked the three-count, but otherwise there is some solid influence from the carols of old here. There’s the synthesized angel choir (bringing a bit of variation to the types of voices); there’s the four-part singing (although there isn’t much in the way of harmony between the boys); and there is the solo lead. The lack of drums (save for the timpani rolls at the beginning) is an old fashioned touch, but one that the Flying Pickets, the Housemartins and Bing Crosby have all used to great festive acclaim. And those peeling bells at the end – however cynically included – would sound so incredibly out of place on a regular pop record that we are pretty much duty-bound to consider this a Christmas song.

Lyrics: Break-ups, suicide, kissing, pain
And it was all going so well…

Verdict: CHRISTMASSY. Just.

Plus, there’s snow in the video.

Fancy Another?

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