A fact to hold close to your heart these next few tinsel-strewn weeks: the majority of Christmas music is crap. Setting aside the traditional and canonical carols – because there is and always will be something sacred and special about the sound of tuneless children forgetting the second verse to “Silent Night” or “Ding Dong Merrily on High” – most of it’s enough to turn the entire family into grinches.
Grandma, who still goes to church, likes the Christian claptrap of “Mistletoe and Wine,” Mum still plays those Shakin’ Stevens singles her aunty bought her when she was resting up in Great Ormond Street after breaking her back, Dad thinks Christmas is “commercialised American bollocks” but you’ve caught him weeping at the Westminster Abbey Choir on Radio 4 for six years on the trot now, and your brother’s just discovered “Just Like Christmas” by Low.
There are, of course, a handful of exceptions to the rule. “Thank God It’s Not Christmas,” by Sparks, say, or Bing Crosby’s eternal tear-jerker “White Christmas.” And maybe it’s the party season taking a heavy toll, but at the right moment The Darkness’ “I Am Santa” hits the spot like a pitch perfect glass of mulled wine. But if there’s one song that everyone can agree on, the musical equivalent of soldiers laying down arms for a post- Top of the Pops kickabout, it’s “Last Christmas” by Wham!.
A nervous child prone to bouts of sentimentality, Christmas felt custom-built to bring on tears, and the Wham! Song was emotional catnip. Year on year, whether I was in the car on the way to see the lights of some distant market town or crushing cheese and onion crisps into flat Coca Cola at a community centre party, “Last Christmas” always prodded me with a shiver of something that felt almost elemental, almost inherent.
That feeling cannonballed from the past to the present recently, in Liverpool Street of all places. Stood in Boots—the air clogged with aftershave, tension, and plastic warping under strip-lights—on a dismal midweek afternoon, I found myself thinking about loss.
Loss, of course, is what powers “Last Christmas.” In itself, that isn’t unusual: pop music is an extended treatise on a topic that’s troubled mankind since we emerged from the swamps, our mouths glued shut with primordial ooze. As a feeling, loss is eminently relatable; it is an indivisible inevitability of life itself, something each and every one of us experiences to varying degrees of seriousness day in, day out.
What makes “Last Christmas” a truly incredible evocation of loss, however, is that it shows rather than tells. By that I mean that anyone can sing about a break up, and a lot of people do, but crafting something that sounds almost analogous to the feeling of weightless vertigo that comes with accepting something is over when, in fact, that’s the very last thing in the world you want, is nigh on impossible. But George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley managed to do it.
It is there in that galloping bassline, a juddering thud that sounds like a lost lover desperately trying to backtrack their way into the good books. It is there in the droopy, weak, drippy synth that plinks and plonks its toytown melody over and over again, sounding brokenly childish in the way that all of us can when romantic fantasy meets adult reality. Even the oddly inert drums manage to evoke a sort of curdled stagnancy reminiscent of a post-breakup hangover where you’re convinced you’re hurtling towards an irreparable regression.
The words that “Last Christmas” uses are fine, perfunctory. They are completely adequate, as most lyrics are. You could, and I have, engender the same emotional response—firing up those same sad synapses that only light up at the sight of a half-crushed minced pie in a drain and the sound of dogs crying with cold on the beach after an ill-advised Boxing Day dip in the sea, all in the name of charity of course—with a German europop version, or a cover from Greece.
But even without the words, without George Michael’s utterly extraordinary vocal performance – and rarely has a singer demonstrated such understated mastery of phrasing, intonation, and delivery – ”Last Christmas” drips with feeling. Like Leyland Kirby’s work as The Caretaker, the instrumental version “Last Christmas” manages to summon the ghosts of everyone you’ve ever loved, of everyone who’s ever lived and been loved and been left and been left unloved. The presence of something that once was and will never be again – however many stars we wish upon, however many bones we crack – haunts the song.
The depth of feeling that propels “Last Christmas” lies at the heart of Christmas itself. Even when we’re together around the table, with crackers in our hands and approximations of smiles on our faces, compliments passing around about the turkey and the wine and the new jumpers, jokes told and groaned at and chucked on the floor, the sensation that something is missing is always hanging above us, rolling up, if we’re lucky, into the extractor fan.
Feeling lost, this Christmas? Feeling abandoned, left behind? Well, that’s what Christmas is all about. Father Christmas himself, the rotund, red-faced old bastard himself is as much a harbinger of a loss as he is a shiny new BMX left in the garage with a bow-tie affixed to the handlebars. He is, in some fundamental way, an icon of unadulterated loss—the second he’s introduced to you at an early age, you’re being set up for a betrayal. Magic and innocence, both will be lost in due course, both will leave holes in your life, holes that can’t and won’t ever be filled.
You will try and fill them, because life is largely an endless exercise in hole-filling. Paper hats worn upside down; an extra-squirt of new aftershave; three more sherries than was necessary; back-to-back episodes of Dad’s Army; a whole tube of Pringles shelved in mere minutes. These are the things you’ll turn to the day you find out that Father Christmas is nothing but a lie, the things you’ll try and seek some solace in the moment it becomes apparent that lies have permeated your entire being.
In a very literal sense an additional layer of loss has also been added to “Last Christmas.” Christmas day 2016 was, of course, the day George Michael passed away at the age of 53. Anyone who’s ambled up to Highgate and looked at the shrine that’s been amassed outside his mansion over the last 12 months will tell you that the atmosphere is a queasy mix of the funereal and the celebratory. It is the latter emotion that now courses around the duo’s song.
You’d assume that “Last Christmas” would find itself unwittingly marinating in the same sentimentality that makes most festive music so unpalatable and saccharine. Whether it’s Judy Garland wondering when we’ll all be together again in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or “Fairytale of New York”s longing for something that was probably more disruptive than it was worth, the history of the Christmas song is a history that says, indulge in all this, let your heart be light because from now on all our troubles will be out of sight. They won’t—because how could they—but as long as there’s a tub of shortbread open and the ever-comforting sound of your grandad snoring in the corner, we can live in this world.
Against all odds, “Last Christmas” never felt or sounded like that. It doesn’t now, when by all rights it should, either.
You can follow Josh on Twitter.