Christmas music: So sweet, so slow

More than ever, Christmas music wants to make us cry. Why?

Can you hear what we hear? No, it’s not a ringing through the sky. It’s a chorus of soft, sad songs, and they’ve taken over Christmas. For more than a decade, UK festive number ones have been dominated by ballads. Sweet, melancholic and most likely performed by a newish popstar covering an old hit, they’ve replaced bouncy glam-rock (“It’s CHRIIIIIIISTMAAAAAAS!”) and novelty songs (“Blobby, blobby, blobby!”).

And it’s not just the charts, advertisers are at it too. Since 2009, John Lewis’ festive campaigns – clever as they may be – have made heart-warming, slow songs their business. This year’s ad, Man On the Moon, was accompanied by Norwegian singer Aurora’s gentle rendition of Oasis’ Half The World Away. The general public sobbed into their breakfast cereal. It was a huge success.

According to Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, consumer psychologist at University College London, this makes perfect marketing sense. “Sad music, that melancholia, assists us in being more reflective and thinking of ourselves in relation to others.” It’s good for retailers, because “in order for us to serve that love we have for family and friends, we translate that into not simply spending time with them, but purchasing a gift or service for them,” he explains.

For Tom Ewing, music critic and market researcher at BrainJuicer, this tune isn’t totally new. “John Lewis identified a particular way that adverts could sound, but the DNA for that was in the air anyway. Eva Cassidy’s Imagine (2002) is almost Patient Zero; it wasn’t necessarily a festive hit, but it was a hit in winter.” Of course, slow songs have topped the Christmas charts before, but the Spice Girls’ optimistic ballads of the late 90s like 2 Become 1 and Too Much were quite different in tone to Gary Jules’ Mad World. That was Christmas number one in 2003 and triggered years of musical melancholy.

“The interesting thing was that it was presented as a kind of straight choice,” says Ewing. That year, The Darkness were “attempting to bring back, in an overtly camp and very over the top way, the big Christmas smash”. The public chose Gary Jules. “At the time [Gary Jules] was very much seen as an alternative to over-commercialised Christmas. No one knew or realised that this would then become the norm.”

So why has the trend snowballed? It’s hard to escape slowed and dampened down versions of beloved old tunes – even Amazon have joined in, most recently releasing compilation Indie for the Holidays. Then there’s The X Factor. The programme’s winners have put a ballad at the top of the Christmas chart almost every year since 2005. But as Ewing points out, “If you look at the artists who have got big this decade, they’re all slow ballad hits – Ed Sheeran, Adele. We’re out of the rock era now and back to where we were in the 50s, and to some extent 70s, where quite gentle, comforting crooners were what the public wanted.”

But as with any trend, there inevitably comes a point at which they end. “Consumers get bored very easily,” explains Dr Tsivrikos. “Our attention span is decreasing, and we want to be inspired by different things.” Just look at The X Factor’s plummeting ratings – last weekend, more people tuned into Countryfile than watched the results show. The Saturday night stalwart could soon be headed for the door – and with it, those winners’ songs.

But what would fill the gap? According to Dr Tsivrikos, a change is looking likely. “It’s been a really horrendous year, and people are fed up of feeling melancholy. A lot of research I've done indicates that we do expect people will engage more with comedy.”

For Ewing, the question doesn’t have such a clear-cut answer. “You can’t bank on The X Factor being dead and there being the opportunity for a kind of proper Christmas number one race – and people won’t know what the streaming patterns will do to the charts,” he explains. “I think the best bet would be a happy, slow charity hit coming through. And then next year we could easily get people actually taking advantage and saying ‘yeah, let’s try it, let’s do a Christmas song’.”

At the very least we could see more variety. As Ewing points out, “Going back, there’s always been two poles of Christmas music – the very reflective and mournful, and the upbeat and joyful. In The Bleak Midwinter was being sung at carol services in Victorian times, and then they would go out into the streets and sing We Wish You A Merry Christmas”.

Sounds about right to us.

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