The Christmas Number One: What’s All the Fuss?

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Mr. Blobby, Spice Girls, Cliff Richard – not three artists you would normally find in the same sentence. Collectively, though, all have played a major part in UK pop culture by having had a Christmas number one. Every year, a baffling variety of acts and songs – the traditional Christmas track, the children’s cartoon novelty tune, the classic pop ballad – battle it out for this most coveted of chart positions.

Indeed this year fits the bill perfectly, with a fight between the annual X Factor winner, Christmas songs from Mariah Carey and The Wombles, Nirvana’s anthemic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and The Only Way Is Essex crew also getting into the mix. Let it be known that the position for number one is only really a British phenomenon, with little importance seen anywhere else.  The question is, why? Why is the Christmas number one so prestigious to the UK music industry?

Maybe the answer lies in Christmas itself – artists attempt to create songs that will receive airplay each year alongside those other Christmas classics like ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’. The fact is, though, that Christmas songs are rarely number ones – the last original Christmas track was Cliff Richard’s ‘Saviour’s Day’ in 1990. It’s true that 2004 also saw a Christmas song top the charts, with Band Aid 20’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ re-release, yet this was hardly an original song with it being the third release of the single since the first Band Aid in 1984. In fact, Band Aid have taken up three of the last six Christmas-based number ones – and then two more are by Cliff Richard. Maybe it’s just that no one writes good songs anymore. In reality, it’s just that new Christmas songs don’t matter anymore it seems; we are fine continuing with the classics.

Michael Jackson claimed the 1995 Christmas number one with 'Earth Song'.

Is success the answer, then? Does having a Christmas number one guarantee you a successful career? Well, scrolling through the Christmas singles charts you might assume so – Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Queen and The Beatles to name just a few. Yet the fact is that most of the acts were established artists before their number one. It’s true, Spice Girls were up-and-coming when they had their first, but the amount of success they had shows they were a pretty one-off kind of phenomenon.

One-hit wonders and novelty songs also appear often; there’s Rolf Harris up there, and who can forget Mr. Blobby’s dance/fart-backed chorus “Blobby/I’m Mr Blobby”, along with Bob the Builder asking “Can We Fix It?”? These are hardly classic songs that we still listen to. Why, then, do acts bother with the Christmas number one? Dominated by established acts and novelty, the battle for Christmas number one is often an extremely futile race, with many competitors and only one winner.

X Factor's Joe McElderry was beaten to the 2009 Christmas number one spot by Rage Against the Machine.

This has been especially true in recent years, where it has been dominated by winners of ITV talent shows – indeed, in some years bookies only take bets on the Christmas number two. Since 2002 – when Popstars: The Rivals produced Girls Aloud, who topped the chart with ‘Sound of the Underground’ (while the number two and three spots were taken by fellow competitors One True Voice and the Cheeky Girls, respectively) – the writing has been on the wall, with five out of the last six Christmas numbers ones going to the inaugural X Factor winner. Even there, it hasn’t been an indicator of their success; Leona Lewis went on to sell millions, but who remembers Leon Jackson?

The 2009-born ‘Rage Against the Machine phenomenon’ has even become predictable. An act of defiance against the corporate monopoly of The X Factor, last year another Facebook campaign began for Biffy Clyro’s ‘Many of Horror’, and this year it’s for Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on the 20th anniversary of the grunge classic release.

Maybe, then, the Christmas number one is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy – an accolade to gain just to go down in history as the Christmas one. Or, more pessimistically, it is a time to cash in when people are spending more freely.

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