Many years ago, all the good girls and boys of the United Kingdom would get a special present from Santa every Christmas – a brand new Christmas number one. But then, the grinch stole this Christmas gift from the good boys and girls and gave them commercial, indistinguishable cover songs instead – ruining the magic of the Christmas number one forever. This, at least, seems to be the prevailing narrative to make sense of the declining importance of the Christmas number one. To some extent, it’s true. But reaching Christmas number one has never been a guarantee of longevity and posterity. Who can honestly say that they remember 1982’s Christmas number one ‘Save Your Love’ by Renee and Renato? ‘Lily the Pink’ by The Scaffold, anyone? Nor did the X Factor mark the death of quality music in the Christmas charts – at least not while 1994’s number one ‘Mr Blobby’ exists. What it did achieve, however, was to expose how insignificant the Christmas number one is in the first place.
From a realistic perspective, the only function of the Christmas number one should be as a fun piece of trivia or as the answer to a pub quiz question. It’s newsworthy, but it doesn’t tend to elicit more than a passing “oh, alright” or a “back in myday we had real music!”, depending on who you’re talking to. In reality, there’s no reason that reaching number one on Christmas Day should be any more momentous than reaching number one on the 16th April. Of course, the snag in this way of thinking is that the British public love Christmas, and so the weekly, relatively mundane event of the updating of the charts is suddenly imbued with a special kind of festive gravitas.
That said, you still most likely wouldn’t lose sleep over it. However, music industry executives have taken note of the public penchant for marking occasions and have turned the idea of the Christmas number one being somehow special into an effective marketing strategy. Whilst the Christmas novelty song has in itself always been somewhat of an exercise in cash-grabbing, the construction of a narrative about how massively important it is to get Christmas number one only encourages people even further to go out and spend their money. The ‘race’ to reach Christmas number one between Slade and Wizzard in 1974 undoubtedly helped to boost both of their sales, and East 17 were able to sustain the momentum of their number one by standing in some fake snow, despite ‘Stay Another Day’ having otherwise nothing to do with Christmas.
On a slightly less cynical note, charity singles, too, are aided by the Christmas spirit of festive goodwill. Bob Geldof could have simply put out an appeal for donations to the Ethopian famine relief, but instead he chose to release an explicitly Christmas-themed charity single with a call to the public to make it reach Christmas number one. It ticked every box possible, and it remains the biggest-selling Christmas number one of all time.
In the 1990s, however, something seemed to happen. Producers realized the potential of novelty songs and suddenly ‘Mr Blobby’ and ‘Can We Fix It?’ joined the illustrious ranks of the Christmas number one, prompting brief outrage from fans of Real Music before they immediately stopped caring about it because it really doesn’t matter. The Noughties, however, took things to a new level; suddenly, the X Factor winners’ single was the Christmas number one four years in a row. It was no longer possible to ignore the amount of marketing manipulation that went into securing the X Factor number one. The fact that these songs were all covers was an even greater affront to fans of Real Music; it seemed as though people couldn’t possibly be buying these songs because they actually liked them, but because they felt as though they had to. It’s no coincidence that the refrain of ‘Killing in the Name’, the Rage Against the Machine song at the centre of the 2009 protest campaign, is “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” The irony of the campaign is not only was it in itself a coordinated campaign to get one specific song to number one, but that RATM’s label are a subsidiary of Sony – just like Syco, Cowell’s label. And the spell was not yet broken – there were three more X Factor Christmas number ones to follow.
With the dawn of the Spotify age, however, Cowell has completely lost his grip on the Christmas number one – because, as the organizers of the RATM campaign correctly pointed out, nobody actually listens to these songs, and the charts are now reflected by what people are streaming and thus actually listening to. This has also inadvertently created an increasingly closed-off canon of Christmas songs which get blasted on repeat every year, sitting uncomfortably in the December charts alongside business-as-usual pop. In the US, 2019’s Christmas number one is the classic ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, a song released 25 years ago. This kind of situation is becoming increasingly likely in the UK – as the Christmas canon becomes ever more entrenched, it’s become increasingly difficult to galvanize the public into accepting new Christmas songs – and especially streaming them in large enough numbers to even hope of reaching Christmas number one. The status quo means that the number one is now almost guaranteed to be a song that was already popular or a song that can somehow sell actual copies in very large numbers.
One genre does, however, benefit from this – the charity single. In this case, people are prepared to go out in their thousands and actually spend their money on one specific song, comforted by the knowledge that it’s all for a good cause. This does mean that these charity number ones bear less resemblance to what people are actually listening to; LadBaby’s sausage roll parodies won’t be appearing at the top of anybody’s Spotify Wrapped. However, if it means that the money is going into the pockets of The Trussell Trust rather than the already well-lined ones of music industry executives, then it is a small sacrifice to make.