The death of the holiday single (hurrah!)

December 23, 2009

Much has been made of the fragmentation of music into niches, so the annual UK Christmas single race stands out as one of the last bastions of mass music consumption. As you probably know, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” took the top spot against the putative winner, the doubly-manufactured mediocrity backed by  X-Factor Svengali Simon Cowell.

Over at dysonsound, writer ledyard expresses reservations about this win, commenting that, although it might be considered a ‘heroic move’ this year, it might ‘signal the obliteration of that holiday tradition [the Christmas single] as anything but a complete and utter waste of peoples’ time and money.’ Ledyard also decries the absence of a defining Christmas song from this decade, and raises the concern that the RATM win is symptomatic: we are now tearing down traditions, but not replacing them with anything.

I come at this from a different perspective. While I appreciate the idea of the Christmas, my family has never celebrated it. Like an increasing proportion of Brits, Canadians, and Americans, I don’t have an ancestral memory of Burl Ives and chestnuts and carolers (I do have an ancestral memory of fireworks in the streets, though).

So I really see the overthrow of this monolithic model of music (everyone listening to the same Top 40 stuff on the radio, say, and running out to buy the latest hit single) as paralleling the decline in a single monolithic culture (everyone celebrating Christmas). It’s not like Christmas music is dead; any number of individual artists continue to record Christmas songs every year. But the absence of a dominant Christmas-themed holiday single in the last ten years in the UK (and elsewhere) is probably more reflective of an increasingly diverse culture than of Cowell’s machinations.

Just as I’m happier living in a world where I can listen to lots of different music, not just what ClearChannel wants to serve me, I’m a lot happier living in a world where Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” isn’t the soundtrack to my entire December.


  1. Seems to me it’s not usually the job of the people tearing down traditions to build new ones in their place. And I’d hazard a guess that the best traditions aren’t deliberately built so much as something that catches on with enough people.

    (I’m sure there are exceptions, but the number of questions people have about longstanding parts of traditions — where does the candy cane come from? Why mistletoe? Etc. — indicate that the ritual is more important than the intent behind it.)

  2. Thanks for the interest in my article, and I really enjoyed your feedback, and I would like to respond:

    When I appealed against the tearing down of traditions without replacing them with others, what I meant was that the tearing down and subverting of traditions is becoming our tradition. Even for a fractured culture, this is not a healthy step to take, because while I am happy to see the fragmentation of our society allowing people the freedom to celebrate whenever, whatever and however they choose, we cannot deny that there is still a global culture in existence, and at the moment, this culture is dominated by trash.

    What we are doing, those of us content to live in our niches (of which I am included), is allowing the global culture to run away with itself. At this moment there is an opportunity for us to deal with the problem directly, rather than ignore it and passively tolerate it. We need to reject the inundation of trash society, a society where we are force fed by Clear Channel the latest 14-year-old hack, or forced by television to hear about the latest reality star willing to debase him or herself a little more than the last one. It isn’t the fact that the Christmas single isn’t Christmas themed, it’s that it’s a piece of shit forced down our throats year after year. Yes, we have a more diverse world, but that doesn’t stop the ‘machinations’ of terrible music plaguing our larger, global society. It keeps going. Why? Because there are still far too many people paying attention to and spending money on it.

    James, I agree with you to some extent that traditions shouldn’t be manufactured and forced upon people, but nearly every tradition we have has come from that very process. In fact, much of Christmas tradition was very consciously manufactured. As a first step, we should rid ourselves of these old traditions, which are not only stagnant, but festering. The second step should be then to rebuild traditions, because at their core traditions are what help us to pass on messages of love and family to each subsequent generation. We should be working to make the dominant culture one that celebrates diversity together, and not as separate pockets doing their own thing. We are all humans, and we should consider that primarily.

    We shouldn’t look at this as a job, but an opportunity, to create something for ourselves, for the niches and the planet at large, that celebrates love and family and human dignity, without the hang ups of old traditions, including religion. I am not suggesting religion be eliminated, but it shouldn’t be a requirement, or a point of separation within the group.

    I am not for the preservation of religious tradition. I am for the preservation of ethics. I myself celebrate Christmas, because I was raised in a Christian home. However, I am an atheist, and treat the holidays as an opportunity to focus entirely on family and friends. We are afforded too few of these opportunities in life, and need to make sure that in a larger sense this spirit is retained. The current global culture is pushing us further and further away from that, and we should do something about it. I know this all sounds idyllic and probably impossible, but it has been done before, and at this very moment, it couldn’t be easier. We’re demonstrating how simple trans-Atlantic conversation can be right now. 🙂

    Sorry for the length.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful and passionate response, ledyard. I appreciate your time and engagement.

    Two points of clarification:

    First, I see the whole Rage Against the Machine thing not as about tearing down holiday traditions, but precisely a reaction to ‘the piece of shit being forced down our throat year after year.’ In the Guardian article I link to above, the founder of the RATM movement commented that, had Cowell et al. chosen to go with the Journey song McElderry sang on TV instead of a warmed-over Miley Cyrus cover, the campaign would have been dead in the water. The strength of the campaign was in direct proportion to how terrible this year’s single was.

    But I don’t think the lack of a defining Christmas single for this decade (as you discuss in your original post) can be blamed on people actively trying to tear down traditions (well, except maybe Cowell himself). Plenty of Christmas music was produced in the last ten years; if nothing became a decade-defining hit, it might just be because it is becoming less and less relevant to individuals. I realize that this might be seen as a loss to those invested in Christmas traditions, but they can’t reasonably ask people who aren’t similarly invested to uphold them.

    As for the rest of it – tradition as a means of transmitting values, and as a means of creating social cohesion, and a possible counter to manufactured culture – that’s a whole other topic.

  4. I think we agree on nearly every level. As per your second paragraph, I was looking at the lack of Christmas singles as a characteristic or outcome of our societal change. We as a culture simply don’t fit into the mold created in the earlier parts of the 20th century. I can’t even imagine how stifling the ubiquity of Christmas is to a person who doesn’t celebrate it. As I mention in the piece, we can go one of two ways: we can continue to try to (uncomfortably) squeeze into or simply tolerate these antiquated traditions year after year, be it Christmas or otherwise, or we can define a new ones for ourselves. I’m for the latter.

    I am new to the blog world, and I am very glad I could hear your thoughts through this wonderful medium. I look forward to reading your posts from now on!

  5. Absolutely – I think that there’s lots of common ground between us.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking original post, ledyard, and thanks for coming here to share your thoughts.

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