All I want for Christmas is … an earworm

| December 25, 2019

As the calendar tipped over from November into December; as radio stations switched their playlists from hot, new up-and-comers to something altogether more seasonal, and as shopping malls and coffee shops started to pipe wall-to-wall Christmas music through their sound systems, somebody somewhere was bound to stop and ask: why are Christmas songs so … annoying?

Well, this year tech giant Huawei decided that the question was pressing enough to survey its UK customers and ask them which Christmas songs irritated them the most.

The winner – if indeed, winner is the mot juste here – was Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You.

Now on the face of it, that might seem to be more than a little pejorative.

The song’s a bit schmaltzy, sure, but it’s catchy, it delivers a healthy dollop of festive cheer and it’s become one of the best-selling Christmas songs of all time. In fact, a quarter of a century after it was first released, the song has just hit the number one spot in the US Billboard music charts.

Surely it doesn’t deserve the dubious accolade of being the yuletide track that’s most likely to get on your nerves?

But thinking about it, I’m really not so sure.

Run the survey again and ask people to pick their favourite Christmas songs, and I’m pretty sure that Mariah would feature pretty near the top of that list too.

Maybe ‘annoying’ is one of the song’s most important musical attributes.

Let me unpack that slightly by saying that not all annoyances are created equal. Even the most exquisite music can vex to the point of exasperation when we hear it on repeat and with little in the way of control over what we’re listening to and when we hear it.

We’ve all experienced that at some point.

You nip into Myers and catch the tail end of Paul McCartney’s Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time; then a few moments later you hear the intro play as you wander through David Jones, and then, just as you sit down with a flat white to try and take your mind off all the shopping you still need to do, you catch the song’s middle eight and the choir of children singing their infernal ding dong, ding dong).

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to describe it as a form of torture.

Indeed, US interrogators at Guantánamo Bay used exactly that approach with inmates there, playing them Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s I Love You over and over again to wear down their resolve.

Ever wonder why you end up buying twice the amount of stuff you set out to when you go to do the big present shop?

But it’s also true that many pieces of music have quite particular characteristic qualities – something intrinsic to the music – that make us feel and respond in a certain way; they make us happy or sad or excited… or annoyed.

Compare the Housemartins’ Happy Hour, a song that never fails to tweak the corners of my mouth into an indulgent grin, to virtually anything by Joy Division, for example.

That’s essentially how film scores work. Media composers are very attuned to those musical shorthands that evoke particular emotions in audiences, and they are wonderfully adept at working them into compositions, using the film as a framework for how the music develops.

Writing a Christmas song isn’t really any different: you have to try and package up all of the joy and nostalgia of the ‘ideal’ Christmas into a three-minute radio-friendly ditty.

The challenge, if you really get that Christmas feeling just right, is that your song is only really relevant for a few short weeks each year, and that presents a very powerful motivating force – how do you write a song that will generate as many sales as possible in the few short weeks when Christmas singles are of-the-moment?

It takes time, effort and a rare talent to channel the mercurial set of skills required to create a timeless masterpiece.

In a world saturated with fast-turnaround commoditised content, it’s far easier and much more cost-effective to skew the process of creation towards the extraordinary. The tracks that stick in our minds are the unusual, the weird and, yes, the annoying.

Welcome to the phenomenon that is the earworm, those repeating musical hooks and simple but irksomely effective melodies that burrow their way deep inside your head and stay there, distracting your every waking moment and keeping you from falling asleep at night.

It’s a phenomenon that I think is best captured by Winnie the Pooh – “Hums aren’t things which you get; they get you.”

There is for example The Crazy Frog, Ylvis’s What Does the Fox Say, or my current ‘favourite’, Baby Shark. If you’ve heard any of those tracks even once, the tunes will currently be bouncing around your head, Pavlovian fashion, at their very mention, and the only way to let them out is to go off and listen to them.

And in these days of streaming, that means revenue.

So back to my original question – why are Christmas songs so annoying? Well largely, it’s because they have to be.

But there is another way.

If you’re sick of all the mawkish sentimentality, say ‘humbug’ to it all, chuck that mince pie in the bin and cue up an anti-Christmas song.

I recommend the Pogues’s Fairy Tale of New York. Just don’t overdo it. That’d get annoying pretty quickly.

This article was published by Pursuit.