Merry Xmas Everybody

I can’t listen to Christmas music at home. When family come round, they’re totally up for it, but the shop playlists are enough for me. You can’t escape them outside, so I’d prefer not to hear them inside.

Bah humbug, and all that.

But I enjoyed reading this interview with Noddy Holder in the Guardian the other day, if only for how depressingly revealing it is.

He talks about Slade’s perrenial hit, “Merry Xmas Everybody”, and how it came to be — a story he must tell every year, in one form or another. But what’s interesting about this interview is that it focuses on its resurgent popularity and the money it makes him. In the process, we find that the song seems to have gotten more popular. A great demonstration of how present nostalgia is an exaggeration of the past, and contrary to the illusion that the song has defined every Christmas since it was first released in 1973, Rich Pelley reports that the song “charted eight times in the 80s, twice in the 90s and every year since 2006.”

Noddy himself thinks he knows why it’s still so popular, although they never dreamed it would be. He says:

I came up with the line “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun,” because the country at the time was in a terrible state with electricians, bakers, miners and gravediggers all on strike. It’s just as valid today because of the state the country. Look to the future, it really has only just begun.

The irony is lost on Noddy, presumably — a 50-year-old song, which continuously insists we look to the future, now defining the repetitious nature of Christmas music.

It reminds me of Grafton Tanner’s really amazing book, published earlier this year, The Hours Have Lost Their Clocka pertinent extract from which was published on Real Life a few months ago. Grafton opens by explaining that the apparent lack of progression and difference in pop aesthetics isn’t just something Dads go on about, it’s a scientifically proven fact:

In 2012, Joan Serrà and a team of scientists at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council confirmed something that many had come to suspect: that music was becoming increasingly the same. Timbral variety in pop music had been decreasing since the 1960s, the team found, after using computer analytics to break down nearly half a million recorded songs by loudness, pitch, and timbre, among other variables. This convergence suggested that there was an underlying quality of consumability that pop music was gravitating toward: a formula for musical virality.

These findings marked a watershed moment for the music discovery industry, a billion-dollar endeavor to generate descriptive metadata of songs using artificial intelligence so that algorithms can recommend them to listeners. In the early 2010s, the leading music-intelligence company was the Echo Nest, which Spotify acquired in 2014. Founded in the MIT Media Lab in 2005, the Echo Nest developed algorithms that could measure recorded music using a set of parameters similar to Serrà’s, including ones with clunky names like acousticness, danceability, instrumentalness, and speechiness. To round out their models, the algorithms could also scour the internet for and semantically analyze anything written about a given piece of music. The goal was to design a complete fingerprint of a song: to reduce music to data to better guide consumers to songs they would enjoy.

This process has impacted far more than just music, as Grafton goes on to argue in the book. Similar processes have been used in elections and, personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if every “fan service” TV show wasn’t driven by similar analytics. The result is more of what Mark Fisher called our “frenzied stasis”. Grafton puts it like this:

If you want to freeze culture, the first step is to reduce it to data. And if you want to maintain the frozen status quo, algorithms trained on people’s past behaviors and tastes would be the best tools.

Of course, these days, you arguably don’t need any new Christmas songs. The palette is so predictable and limited that the already-mades always rise back to the top. (As for what’s left, Tariq Goddard recently reviewed all of Western civilisation’s Christmas music for the Quietus, which I can’t recommend enough.)

The continued success of “Merry Xmas Everybody” in the 21st century is surely the perfect example of this process. Its renewed popularity even fits the cultural timeline. Compounded by the fact that the battle for Christmas No. 1 was put to rest (in the UK at least) by the decade-long cultural hegemony of TV talent shows, which have since devolved into novelty songs written for good causes, it is surely no coincidence that Noddy Holder’s pension plan really kicked in the year that Spotify was founded. Remember what Pelley said: it has charted every year since 2006

Spotify’s algorithms run Christmas now, and Noddy’s frozen advice to look to the future only becomes more woefully ironic, its winter radio ubiquity evoking Groundhog Day a little too closely. As Grafton argues:

Those who worship the power of digital technology may believe that we are on track to a utopia where people can escape from the future we’ve made. But if we let algorithms predict the future for us all, we will find there is nowhere to go but back.

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