Sour sugarplums

I think I was in my twenties when I learned that demographers thought of me as a baby boomer. It was something of a shock. To me, boomers were 5-15 years older than me, at risk of being drafted into the Vietnam War. I was too young to be a boomer.

But numbers don’t lie, and although the birthrate had been declining slowly for a couple of years before I was born, there’s no question it was still up near the peak. So I’ve come to terms with who I am, and when young punks like Randall Munroe bitch about boomers, I feel compelled to defend my cohort.

xkcd 988

I think the endurance of these songs is due less to the happy memories of selfish boomers than to changes in popular music during the 20th century. Clearly, for a Christmas song to get a lot of radio play now, it had to have come out after the ’20s. Records with decent fidelity and frequency response didn’t exist in mass numbers before then. And the singing styles and instrumentation prevalent in the ’20s and before haven’t aged well.

The end of popular Christmas songs pretty much came with the dominance of rock and roll. There are probably several reasons for this, but I have to believe the biggest one is rock and roll’s idea of itself as outsider music—that just doesn’t lend itself to Christmas songs. As rockers age, they become more willing to cover Christmas songs, but they seldom write them. And hip-hop artists consider themselves even more badass, so I don’t expect Randall’s distribution to change very much, even after the boomers are gone.

By the way, Randall’s doing a little cherry picking, too. In 2009, ASCAP announced a top 25 list for the previous decade, not a top 20 list. The five songs that Randall chose to leave off were

Adding these wouldn’t have changed the distribution much, but those last two would have made the story a little less neat, wouldn’t they?1

There is, of course, a simpler response to Randall’s complaint. It’s also explains why classic rock blares from construction sites loaded with 20-somethings:

It's true

I’m not interested (much) in tweaking Gen Y’s well-deserved inferiority complex, but I am interested in hearing what recent songs Millennials think should be getting more play.2

  1. In the spirit of the season, I will not reiterate my hatred of “Wonderful Christmastime.” 

  2. I’m a little surprised the relatively recent “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey didn’t make the top 25. It seems very hard to avoid. 

8 Responses to “Sour sugarplums”

  1. Clark says:

    It seems like what we get now are lots and lots of covers. To be fair too a lot of popular Christmas songs pre-date the 20th century. So I think the above stats are really biased by popular music stations primarily playing popular music (i.e. quasi-country or quasi-rock). But Away in a Manger is arguably one of the great Christmas songs and it dates to 1885. I bet the above stats says more about the format of most radio stations than it does the popularity of songs.

  2. Clark says:

    Just a second quick update. I did a list of some of what I’d guess as the most popular Christmas songs and carols and the majority are from the 19th century with some (The First Noel) dating earlier.

    As for popular songs from the 70’s onward not listed there are a few but not many. Say Lennon’s Happy XMas. But that was ‘71 and so really still a baby boomer thing. Merry Christmas Darling by the Carpenters is 1970 (I couldn’t find the exact date) There’s that Run DMC song Christmas in Holis but while that’s fun it’s hardly great and not exactly easy to carol. Wham had Last Christmas from 1984 but I refuse to call anything by Wham a classic. That Live Aid song from 84 Do They Know It’s Christmas gets played a lot but I honestly think it sucks as a song.

    I have some Christmas songs that are new that I really like. Low has a bunch but most people have never heard of them.

  3. Carl says:

    As a Millennial allow me to say, all Christmas music is horrible, and I hope no one in my generation writes any more of it. If Christmas music were good music, we could listen to it in December. “Summertime” is a good song in fall or even winter. Christmas songs are all bad, especially at Christmas.

    Bah, humbug.

  4. Carl says:

    Oops. Should be “we could listen to it in January.”

    That said, I think the original is correct too. The songs stink in December as well.

  5. Matthew McVickar says:

    You might like this take on Randall’s graph from music writer and scholar Eric Harvey:

    ‘…this trend is as much a reflection of the sort of canon-creation that was fueled by the simultaneous rise of commercial radio and television as it is a boomer scheme to keep their childhoods alive…’

    Boomers run the radio stations, and, while I don’t have numbers to support it, I would guess that boomers also listen to the Christmas music-heavy (adult contemporary) stations in dramatically higher numbers than younger demographics do.

    As a millennial and music-obsessive I can report that there is an endless amount of Millennial-era Christmas songs ranging from the Starbucks/NPR indie canon to more left-field fare. The following come to mind immediately: Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s ‘A Very She & Him Christmas’ from this year; Coldplay’s numerous Christmas covers and originals, Sufjan Steven’s seven (eight?) volumes of Christmas music, the ‘Maybe This Christmas’ and other alternative Christmas music compilations, Low’s Christmas EP, R. Kelly’s ‘Love Letter Christmas’ song from last year, the indie all-stars cover of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, and the proliferation of ‘indie christmas music’ round-up posts on hundreds of MP3 blogs every December.

    An interesting tidbit regarding turn-of-the-century styles not aging well: Dust to Digital, a record label that specializes in resurrecting rare and historic recordings, released a compilation curated by the 74-year-old Dick Spottswood (who has an excellent radio show on WAMU) called Where Will You Be on Christmas Day in 2004 with a bunch of early American recordings dating from 1917 to 1959. If you can look past the beyond-lo-fi nature of the recordings, I recommend it.

  6. Dr. Drang says:

    After reading Clark’s comment about older songs, I wondered, too, why they aren’t on the chart. That they were written before the rise of recorded music shouldn’t matter, as Randall is plotting “decade of popular release,” not “decade of publication.” My guess is that the reason lies in the original maker of the list. ASCAP doesn’t care about “Away in a Manger” because it can’t collect composer or publisher royalties on it.

    As for covers, there’s another interesting point about the ASCAP list: it includes the versions of the songs that were popular in the ’00s. In some ways, this information undercuts Randall’s thesis, because the popular versions are often not the ones boomers listened to as children. Thus, it’s Josh Groban’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Michael Bublé’s “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” the Eurythmics’ “Winter Wonderland,” and Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Obviously, the latter two are boomer-centric versions, but they didn’t come out in the ’50s or ’60s.

    Although I didn’t write it for this reason, this post was an almost perfect example of Matthew McVickar bait, and he rose to it like a bass going after a Daredevil. Thanks for the recommendations and the link to Eric Harvey.

    “Age well” was a poor choice of words. What I meant was that the characteristics of old recordings make them unlikely candidates for popularity today. Similar to how, unfortunately, black-and-white movies are ignored by great swaths of people.

    I should also mention that although I took a cheap shot at the music of Gen Y, I wouldn’t want to defend “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” or especially “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

  7. Horace says:

  8. Matthew McVickar says:

    Eric posted a more formal and in-depth followup at The Atlantic that you might enjoy!