Christmas number one taste test: Mariah Carey or sausage rolls?

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Let Mariah Carey shout it from the rooftops in as many octaves as her famous warble permits. Twenty-five years after its original release, her festive classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has finally reached number one in the US. Furthermore, it’s the first Christmas-themed song to top the Billboard Hot 100 in its 61-year history — a remarkable result for the land that once produced “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

It might rarely top the charts, but Christmas music has always been taken seriously in the US, where it attracts the attention of the biggest stars. Carey released her album Merry Christmas in 1994 when she was at the peak of her powers; it was not an on-the-slide cash-grab for the holiday dollar. Oddly, however, the race for the Christmas number one single has never caught the popular imagination.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation could not be more different. The annual competition for the festive top spot in Britain is the object of frenzied speculation. Bookmakers take bets; commentators provide updates. The unveiling of the winner is treated as a national event.

Stormzy at London's O2 Arena
Stormzy at London’s O2 Arena

This year’s race boiled down to three acts. Mariah was one. So was Stormzy with “Own It”, a single from his new album Heavy Is the Head. Standing between these two and victory — the David to their Goliaths — was “I Love Sausage Rolls”: a novelty song about pork-based pastry snacks by a YouTuber called LadBaby.

The tussle has carried an extra edge. Each of the three represents a particular archetype of the British Christmas number one: the frankincense, gold and myrrh of the format, one might say.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the frankincense of the three: an unabashed holiday song with jangling sleigh bells, mistletoe romance and Mariah whipping up a vocal snowstorm. For a quarter of a century this light-hearted confection has wafted around Christmas parties, creating good cheer.

A similar, albeit less fragrant, equivalent is Slade’s anthem “Merry Xmas Everybody”, which took the honours in 1973. In a particularly keenly contested year, it beat back a challenge from glam-rock rivals Wizzard, whose “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” faltered at number four in the charts.

Stormzy’s attempt to be Christmas number one with “Own It” carries a different emphasis. The single is not explicitly festive, but the timing of its release during the holiday season is deliberate: an effort by the rapper to consolidate his position as 2019’s most significant British act. Claiming the year’s most prestigious chart placing here would have been a kind of gold medal.

Previous Christmas number ones of this variety include The Beatles, on four occasions in the 1960s, and the Spice Girls, three times in the 1990s. Even Pink Floyd, primarily an albums band, were not immune to the golden lustre of the Christmas number one: “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” was 1979’s winner.

Finally, we come to LadBaby’s “I Love Sausage Rolls”, a parody of Joan Jett and The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock and Roll”. This song is the myrrh of the three competitors for Christmas number one — “myrrh” here a combination of “meh” and “eurgh”, the noise made by many Britons at their compatriots’ insistence on sending novelty songs to number one on Christmas Day.

LadBaby at Abbey Road studios, London
LadBaby at Abbey Road studios, London

LadBaby is a vlogger, real name Mark Hoyle, who already has a Christmas number one under his comedy Santa belt. Last year he parlayed his interest in sausage rolls into a parody version of Starship’s “We Built This City”. “We Built This City . . . On Sausage Rolls” duly romped home as 2018’s yuletide winner. The proceeds for the new song, performed with his wife Roxanne, are going to a charity that runs food banks, an admirable cause. But his version of Jett’s hit means that it will now be impossible to unhear the words “sausage roll” when listening to the original.

Novelty songs are the Christmas jumpers of pop. They treat the season of goodwill on Earth and peace to all men as a giant extravaganza of daftness, a time of year for dancing the conga and having a giggle. Bob the Builder’s admittedly catchy “Can We Fix It?” is a prior example of the type: it was Christmas number one in 2000. Mr Blobby’s egregious “Mr Blobby” provided the soundtrack to sherry and mince pieces in luckless 1993.

British identity is bound up in pop music in a different fashion from the US: the charts are treated as a national barometer in a way that the Billboard top 100 is not. The Christmas number one is the ultimate expression of this, a snapshot of the nation’s state of being as revealed by its best-selling single. Congratulations must therefore go to LadBaby, this year’s chart-topper, for capturing the flavour of the times.

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