The Christmas No. 1:
A Hauntological Frontline?

Mariah Carey’s ubiquitous Christmas single, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, recently topped the UK Singles Chart for the first time. This achievement has been celebrated by fans as a kind of retribution for a song that never quite had any “official” recognition as a “modern Christmas classic”.

When the song was first released back in 1994, it was pipped to the Top of the Pops post by East 17’s arguably more iconic, if less lyrically explicit in its Christmassyness, “Stay Another Day”.

It’s strange that it has taken this long for Carey to top the charts. It didn’t quite happen for her in 1994, but it also didn’t happen for her in 2003, when the song surely got a second wind following its appearance in Love Actually. It has felt wholly unavoidable since then, regardless.

It’s left me wondering just how much of a weathervane Christmas No. 1s are. What does it say about 2020 that Carey’s 26-year-old hit has finally been recognised by something like the UK Singles Chart, which has struggled to retain relevance or profile over the last few decades, following the decline of sales and the rise of streams? The most likely answer is “nothing at all”, but Christmas No. 1s have often been strangely significant for various other reasons. In many ways, they reflect where the nation’s head is at, at the end of a given year. They often reflect events or broader social trends or certain sentiments that, I’d argue, tell us more about ourselves than the No. 1 song during any other week of the year.

A few examples: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was first a Christmas No. 1 in 1975; it returned to the top of the charts in 1991 as a sort of sonic memorial, following Freddie Mercury’s death in November of that year. On other occasions, a Christmas No. 1 has been a chance to raise money for good causes with novelty songs or a way to cash in on some pop-cultural trend. Band Aid might be the most famous novelty project, winning it twice with two equally tone-deaf charity numbers in 1984 and 2004. But in 1980, for instance, the top slot went to St. Winifred’s School Choir; in 1993, it went to Mr Blobby; in 2000, it went to Bob the Builder; and 2018 and 2019, it went to LadBaby for two separate songs that were nonetheless both about sausage rolls — the first time the Christmas No. 1 has gone to the same artist consecutively since the Spice Girls won it three years in a row in the mid-Nineties. Do not underestimate this country’s love of pastried meats…

Though it all sounds a bit daft, each of these Christmas No. 1s does tell us something about the extent of our yearly insanities. Looking down a list of all the No. 1s, you can easily tell when Beatlemania was in full swing; you can tell when the Spice Girls took over the world; you can see that 2005 was the year that British talent shows and singing contests first took over the Christmas airwaves — a reign that lasted just short of a decade.

In 2009, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” took the top spot. That was an interesting moment. A campaign was launched, perhaps initially in jest, to deny a fifth consecutive Christmas number one to some disposable X Factor winner. The campaign raised around £70,000 for charity and was hailed by all sorts of rock royalty as a cool gesture of protest against corporate mediocrity.

Although the song was originally written as a protest against America’s military-industrial complex and penchant for racial injustice — making its deployment against televised talent shows a painfully British sort of rock protest, arguably making it a gesture as hollow as anything Simon Cowell has been responsible for in his career — it did show… something… I guess? (Matt Cardle, winner of the 2010 series of X Factor, took the Christmas number one the following year.)

Are Christmas No. 1s points of reference along our cultural decline? Or our cognitive decline? Does each successive year maybe tell us something about our collective dementia? This is not a defence of any of these songs. Very few of them are any good, but it is precisely because they’re not good that they seem to more honestly demonstrate the fickle nature of the market and how it manipulates us.

There is, occasionally, a genuinely interesting song that tops the charts at Christmas that doesn’t just reflect back our worst impulses, however. There are occasionally songs that come along that, often inadvertently, reveal something genuinely insightful about ourselves.

In 2016, for instance, Clean Bandit took the Christmas top spot with “Rockabye”: a sonic identity crisis that was, arguably, the first seasonal hit single to sound representative of modern British pop (for better or worse) since Girls Aloud’s “Sound of the Underground” in 2002.

The winter of 2016, following Trump’s election and the Brexit vote, was precisely a year of identify crises around the world, and the song’s video, in particular, reflects this. Despite its aping of summertime Ibiza highs and Sean Paul’s unmistakeable dancehall patter, it kind of does feel like a Christmas music video? It’s got dreary grey men in pubs miming and a rustic dance routine; it could almost be a Pogues video, caught between glamour and destitution.

With the sound off — or even with the sound on — “Rockabye” becomes an oddly hauntological affair. There’s something not quite right about it. Its identity crisis makes it eerie. Though I’m not sure I would say this of the song on its own, the whole audio-visual package does feel like “the sonic equivalent of the ‘corner of the retina’ effect that the best ghost stories have famously achieved”, as Mark Fisher once put it. There’s the flicker of an insight here, just out of audible range. A deeper message about how, at Christmas, we have a tendency to repress the horrors of the year under inauthentic cheer. Here, what is spectrally out of reach is a hard Christmas truth.

Fisher continues:

To understand what this entails, we need to reverse, or at least nuance, the commonplace§which has it that the ghost is at its most scary only when it can’t fully be seen. To say this implies that the ghost could be made the positive object of apprehension. Yet spectres are unsettling because they are that which can not, by their very nature (or lack of nature), ever be fully seen; gaps in Being, they can only dwell at the periphery of the sensible, in glimmers, shimmers, suggestions.

Applied to Clean Bandit, this isn’t to say that some hidden truth is capable of being uncovered and laid bare. It is a message that it subliminal perhaps even to the musicians themselves. It is a message that can only be partially glimpsed through the false consistency of the song’s high-energy atmosphere.

This is the hauntological presented to us in a mode distinct to that which we are used to. Burial, for instance, makes hauntological forms very explicitly by producing aural screen memories of raves never been to. The glimmers are, very knowingly, the point.

Clean Bandit is less on the nose about its eeriness, but it is similarly a slice of culture that struggles to sit with itself. It is, all at once, a lullaby and an Ibiza banger. It’s a song about night life told from the perspective of a struggling mum — a story of a very different kind of night life to the one we’re used to singing along with but it is rendered as a singalong for us all the same. To layout everything going on in that song in front of you, in an attempt to take all of its disparate and ill-fitting parts in, beyond the false consistency of its pop production, is to see a strange amalgamation of affective lacunae.

No other Christmas number one before or since has managed to encapsulate and demonstrate the weirdness of this country’s festive season so inadvertently. But it raises questions about what the excessive hits we choose to indulge at Christmas — whether for good causes or lost causes — are inadvertently revealing. The nation doth sentimentalise too much, methinks. To what end? To collectively shout “everything is fine” at the end of successively infernal calendars?

In 2020, granting Mariah Carey an opportunity previously missed 26 years ago surely says something about our feelings regarding this lost year, dyeing which the forces of retrospection have been at their strongest.

Christmas is that time of year when the last twelve months of cultural turmoil are delivered to us on a grotesque pop platter. For the last 15 years, almost every Christmas has been defined by stasis or ironic pastiche. Perhaps a 26-year-old song topping the charts for the first time, and thereby combining these two tendencies, is the weird Christmas entry we deserve.

What’s the opposite of a palette cleanser?

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