Justin Bieber has a “new” hit single that is actually almost as old as he is. He’s released a duet of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” with Mariah Carey, who wrote and recorded the original version in 1994, although its Motown-throwback sound was so charmingly retro that it could have been written in the 1960s, around the time of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” As young as 17 may be for a human being like Bieber, if we were talking about a regular pop song that age, it would be ancient. Which raises the question: what’s it going to take for a new Christmas song to enter the canon, after almost two decades since the last one?
Try to think for a moment about Christmas songs you didn’t grow up with because they didn’t exist yet. Depending on your age, you may come up with Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or BandAid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (both of which, like “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” have been covered multiple times, including by the cast of Glee, which instantly raises the profile of almost any song.) Pretty much the only song that comes to mind from this century is the execrable “Christmas Shoes” by NewSong in 2000. But why?
(MORE: Top 10 Overplayed Holiday Songs)
Perhaps because the holidays are inherently nostalgic. Coming as they do at the end of the year, when bad weather and early darkness conspire to trap us inside our homes, it’s natural to become introspective and reflect upon the past. Decorations seem to hearken back even further to times before we were born, whether it be the early-to-mid-20th-century architecture of miniature Christmas villages, representations of Victorian carolers or dioramas that imagine a scene in a Middle Eastern barn two millennia ago. Maybe it would just be too jarring for us to integrate a new Lady Gaga composition as part of that whole universe (not that she hasn’t tried, and I can’t honestly recommend the result.)
It hasn’t always been this way. Even if it seems like they’ve been around for as long as the English language, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” were once completely new to our ears. But those songs came out in a time when popular music was much more monolithic than it is now. These days, there are so many genres and subgenres, with a radio station and ten satellite channels for each one, that a new holiday hit in just one of them may never again get the traction a tune needs to achieve grade-school sing-along status.
In this environment, the next Christmas classic probably isn’t going to come to us; we’ll have to go to it. Current artists like Jack Johnson, Sara Bareilles, and the Killers have put out seasonal songs in the past few years, but good luck catching them on the radio. In the meantime, if you’re tired of roasting the old chestnuts on an open fire, it’s probably worth going out of your way to track down lesser-known holiday tunes like “Merry Christmas from the Family” (Jill Sobule’s version), ”2,000 Miles” (The Pretenders), “Fairytale of New York” (The Pogues) and “25th December” (Everything But The Girl). Even if not all of those are actually any newer than “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” you may not yet have heard them a thousand times performed by a thousand different artists, and that may have to be enough to last however many Christmases it’s going to be before the next new mainstream tune shows up under the tree.
Because as bleak as the picture may look now, it’s only a matter of time before an artist with both songwriting chops and mainstream crossover appeal — a Taylor Swift or a Mary J. Blige, for instance or even Lady Gaga getting serious — answers the pent-up demand for a new holiday classic and comes up with something that’s both new and yet still sounds like a Christmas song, and it’s going to explode. That may well trigger a flood of new holiday tunes unlike anything we’ve seen since the 60s.
At least, that’s a more appealing possibility than that of waiting another couple of decades until, for example, a 40-year-old Swift records a Christmas duet with someone who was just born this year.