Chart turkeys or festive fun?
With everyone from Lady Gaga to Michael Bublé releasing Christmas songs, Ed Power discovers why singers go crackers for the sound of yuletide sales
Published 11/12/2011 | 06:00
Shield your eyes -- Lady Gaga has unveiled her most startling makeover yet. Chucking aside her traditional uniform of lamb-chop dress and fake devil horns, the 'Poker Face' singer is stepping upmarket.
For her latest single, Gaga dons classy white furs and emotes in the sort of husky warble you associate with cocktail hour at a swanky hotel.
Gone, for the moment at any rate, are the lesbian fantasy overtones, the Philip Treacy-on-drugs hats and the livestock-scaring dominatrix schtick.
What could have happened to so radically tilt the Gaga-verse off its axis?
The answer is that it's Christmas, the one moment that even a goggle-eyed pop maverick is prepared to slip into a sensible frock if it means shifting a few more records.
Her version of 'White Christmas' has just hit the radio and, while you might expect her to do something dramatic to the song, she stays surprisingly faithful to the Irving Berlin original.
Admittedly, he might shudder at the extra verse she's bunged in: "I'm dreaming of a white snowman/With a carrot nose and charcoal eyes."
Traditionally, Christmas was when 'respectable' pop stars got out of the game. With thousands of people who would never normally darken the entrance to a record store setting off to purchase their solitary CD of the year, the understanding was that this was no time for proper musicians to be moving product.
Christmas was for 'Gift Grub' best-ofs, pensioners buying Jedward CDs for their grandkids and schmaltzy compilations.
However, with the music industry in apparently terminal decline -- if album sales keep plummeting at their current rate, there is every possibility that, within a decade, Dublin might not have a single record store -- Gaga and her ilk have decided this is no time to be sniffy about Christmas.
Hence a sudden stampede of musicians hoping to clamber aboard what is looking increasingly like a tinsel-strewn bandwagon. In fact, 'sudden' is an overstatement. The trend has been building for a while now.
In 2009, kooky singer- songwriter and sometime Kinsale resident Tori Amos put out a yuletide collection called 'Midwinter Graces', which proved to be her finest album in a decade.
In the mid-1990s, an obscure American Mormon duo named Low had a surprise hit with an EP called, simply, 'Christmas'.
As far back as the early 1960s, gun-toting producer Phil Spector corralled girl groups such as The Ronettes and The Crystals for the timeless 'A Christmas Gift to You'.
This year, the 'serious' Christmas album has truly arrived.
You know something is in the air when an artist of the status of Kate Bush -- whose records come along at roughly the same rate as a decent Jennifer Aniston movie -- broke her silence with '50 Words for Snow', an album thematically devoted to the holiday season (with heavyweight guest appearances from Elton John and Stephen Fry at that).
She's hardly alone. Joe McElderry off 'The X Factor' has a Christmas collection on the way, as do the cast of 'Glee' and, what a thought, the stars of 'The Only Way Is Essex'.
Justin Bieber is dueting with Mariah Carey on a version of 'All I Want for Christmas is You'.
Michael Bublé, for his part, is on the record as saying that his new collection of yuletide staples will be the project for which he is truly remembered.
"The truth is, I've wanted to do this Christmas record forever. You have to be pretty cynical, or Jewish, not to like Christmas," he said recently.
"It sounds funny, but it's the most important record of my life so far. If I've done it right, when I'm dead I seriously doubt people will be listening to 'Crazy Love'," he said of his last, mega-selling studio album. "But they'll be listening to this Christmas record every year. It becomes part of your legacy. Look at Bing Crosby -- can you name me a bunch of Bing songs apart from 'White Christmas'?"
So far, so bubblegum. For those whose tastes run a little more obscure, Christmas 2011 also has lots to be cheerful about, however.
Movie star Zooey Deschanel -- she of the big blue eyes and baby-doll squeak -- has teamed up with her long-term musical partner M Ward for a collection of celebratory Christmas standards (including 'Baby It's Cold Outside', which she sang in 'Elf').
More surprising yet, Tom Smith of the gloomy Editors and Andy Burrows, who used to write songs with Johnny Borrell in Razorlight, have joined forces to record 'Funny Looking Angels', which includes their cover of Nat King Cole's 'The Christmas Song'.
Similarly, Ash alternative hunk Tim Wheeler has put together a charming record with his girlfriend Emma-Lee Moss, aka Emmy The Great.
"I'm in charge of the music in my family, and I see it as my duty to make Christmas lunch bearable," Emmy told 'Weekend'.
"So I do pay attention to new Christmas albums, and I have my mainstays out of the classics -- Beach Boys, Phil Spector, etc. I'll be getting Smith and Burrows and She & Him this year to make a Christmas mix out of. I like to keep an even balance; the classic stuff to please my parents and the indie stuff to impress my brother."
She has rosy memories of recording 'This is Christmas', her collection of duets with Wheeler.
It came together last Christmas, when they were visiting her parents in London. Heavy snow meant Tim missed his flight home to Ireland. Marooned in the house for days on end, they finally pulled out their guitars and bashed out a few songs.
At the time, she thought she was going stir crazy. Looking back, it might just have been the best Christmas ever -- though it did feel weird to then revisit the songs in a recording studio over the summer.
"It was really great," Emmy said. "Being snowed in was fun overall, though we did feel a bit trapped after the sixth day or so. Then, there was a bit of the year, in May, when we were basically making a Christmas record in spring, and that was super fun.
"We laughed a lot while we were doing the record," she continued. "I think it's the most I've ever laughed while writing songs, which may not surprise you, if you've heard my solo stuff."
The rush aboard the musical equivalent of the polar express could have cynical motives too, suggests Irish songwriter Ryan Sheridan, who has just put out a Christmas EP. "Maybe everyone is trying to get the big seasonal hit, like 'Fairytale of New York'," he said.
For her part, Zooey Deschanel feels Christmas albums have a rich heritage in popular music. It's the only occasion you are allowed to sing unabashedly upbeat songs without feeling self-conscious.
"Some of my favourite records are Christmas records, and the Beach Boys and Phil Spector ones are my favourite," she said.
"[On the track 'Christmas Day'] I liked throwing a song with a bigger production in a sort of intimate-sounding record... It was so much fun doing the backing vocals for that one, too. Lots of stacked harmonies."
This isn't to suggest Christmas songs have to be sappy, glib and throwaway. It may have its detractors, but who could argue that The Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York' does not pack an emotive punch?
"The best ones make you feel sad and happy at the same time," Tom Smith of Editors said recently. "I wrote the lyrics for 'When the Thames Froze' last Christmas after seeing the student protests, shops shutting down and really feeling that people had less money.
"At Christmas you come together and go, 'Okay, maybe that was a bit of a shit year' -- but you have the perhaps naïve hope that next year will be better."