With the 25th of December knocking at our doors, there’s a truth I want to get off my chest: a lot of Christmas music is crap. Living in Pakistan, I am very easily exposed to Christmas music while watching Christmas shows/movies available on my Netflix account; and in all honesty, Christmas coincides with the Quaid’s birthday in Pakistan – so the festivities are dually felt in my part of the world. Friends abroad tell me that during this holiday season, they can’t walk into a grocery store without getting ambushed by some version of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Coming back to the holiday season that is just starting, a random thought crossed my mind: every musician who sells more than two records will also eventually try their hands at a Christmas tune, making the amount of this music genre truly staggering. This means that the not-so-great dreck will always accompany the great music we “receive” (or have ever received, for that matter) around Christmas time. Notice that some of the worst Christmas songs include psychotic butcheries of beloved classics, with horrific attempts at covering / remixing them. And then these songs somehow find themselves on shuffle at holiday parties.
So as an example, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from the 1930s has been brutally massacred by Bruce Springsteen’s sweaty-dad-ripping-a-hole-in-the-back-pocket-of-his-Levis version. My parents recall the excessive drumming in Jackson 5’s “Drummer Boy” and us eastern folks will insist that Christmas is way too “commercialised for anyone’s good” – but will happily go out to see the city lit up every year on 25-December.
But there are, of course, several exceptions to the rule.
For a minute, recall the traditional Christmas carols that we grew up listening to – because that one out of tune child who forgets the second verse to “Silent Night,” is and always will be truly endearing, just like “Deck the Halls” is a forever favourite. Songs like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas”, “8 Days of Christmas” by Destiny’s Child, “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and “Under the Tree” that Sam Pallido did for The Princess Switch: Switched Again OST all give the Christmas feels.
But if there’s any one song that everyone can agree on, the musical equivalent of a warm fire on a cold winter’s night, it’s “Last Christmas” by Wham!.
An adult prone to the most random bouts of sentimentality, I often feel that Christmas season is somehow custom-built to bring on tears and that Last Christmas was emotional weed. Maybe this has something to do with how they show it in some of my favorite movies like Love Actually, Collateral Beauty and the Home Alone series. Interestingly, this personal thought process wasn’t isolated. A friend living in the US described it very articulately: “Year after year, whether the family drove around town to see the Christmas lights up or I was having cheese and crackers at the City Centre party, “Last Christmas” always pinned me with something that felt inherently basic – like loss”.
This sentiment was recently triggered, while making my way through the Blessed Friday sales at Dolmen Mall – of all places. Standing at Khaadi on a busy Sunday afternoon, browsing items on sale and deciding what to buy, I found myself thinking about loss.
Loss is evidently the theme behind “Last Christmas.” That is common: music is often an extension of a topic that’s troubled mankind since the start of time. And as a feeling, loss is entirely relatable; and in all honesty, it’s an inherent inevitability of life itself: something everyone experiences to varying degrees of seriousness day in, day out – throughout our lifespans.
For a split minute, revisit the audio and video to this legend of a song.
Notice that it literally “shows” the evocation of loss, transcending the basic “telling” part. By that I mean that anyone can sing about a breakup – as many people do and the lyrics to “Last Christmas” do seamlessly fall into place and are completely adequate. But it is truly impossible to craft something that “both” looks and sounds like the “feeling” of weightless vertigo that comes with accepting the end of something when, in fact, that’s the very last thing in the world you want. To this equation, add the personification of the sentiment behind low self-worth or feelings of inadequacy, and you have the magical Last Christmas as done by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.
Those quick basses together with that juddering thud sound like a lost lover desperately trying to reclaim his position in those good books. Even the “supposed” soft pop behind the vocals sounds as endearingly childish as many of us are when romantic fantasy meets adult reality. And that oddly passive drumming evokes a sort of poignant stagnancy reminiscent of that post-breakup hangover that convinces you that you’re hurtling towards an irreparable regression.
But to be completely unbiased – discounting the lyrics, the video and George Michael’s extraordinary vocal performance and delivery, “Last Christmas” drips with feeling. In an eerie way, the instrumental backdrop to “Last Christmas” summons the ghosts of everyone who’s ever loved, been loved, been left and been left unloved. And this is what makes the song haunting: the perpetual presence of something that once was and will never be again – no matter how many stars we wish upon, or however many bones we may crack.
I’ve been told that this theme of loss behind “Last Christmas” is what lies at the heart of Christmas itself. Another friend described it very aptly, “Sarah, even when we’re together around the table, our Christmas stockings packed with holiday treats, crackers in our hands and smiles on our faces, jokes told and groaned at, the sensation of something / somebody lost is always hanging above us”.
And maybe that’s what the holiday season is all about.
To personify it, Father Christmas himself is, in some fundamental way – the ultimate icon of unadulterated loss; the moment he’s introduced to you at age six, you’re being set up for a betrayal. What do you turn to or take solace in, the day you learn that Father Christmas is a lie – that has permeated your entire being?
In due course, you’ll lose the magic and innocence attached to Father Christmas – leaving holes in your life: that don’t, can’t and won’t ever be filled. You attempt to fill them, because life is endless exercise in hole-filling. This could include that last squirt from the old bottle of ketchup; three more cherries than was necessary; and an entire tube of sour cream and vinegar Pringles shelved in minutes.
Question: what is it about “Last Christmas” (as a song) that makes it more festive than other Christmas music? Songs like Taylor Swift’s Christmas Tree Farm and Backstreet Boys’ Christmas Time leave you longing for something bigger than your imagination – completely reminiscent of what the history of Christmas music tells us: lighten your heart by indulging in any and everything and moving your troubles out of sight, in the process.
Here’s the thing, though. Your troubles won’t ever be out of sight, because, how could they? And against all odds, “Last Christmas” felt, sounded & looked exactly like that – when it said:
Once bitten and twice shy
I keep my distance, but you still catch my eye
Tell me baby, do you recognize me?
Well, it’s been a year, it doesn’t surprise me