Remember that time everyone got mad about the red Starbucks cups? Bc they didn’t say “Happy Birthday Jesus” or whatever on them and therefore couldn’t possibly be about xmas? I don’t want to spend a ton of time making this point because it’s kinda duh, but of course they were about xmas! Because Christian ideology has dominated religion in the US since before there was officially a US, there is no gesture even mildly related to Christianity–say, changing all your cups from white to red sometime in November–that isn’t therefore about Christianity. That’s how hegemony works: discourse and power and money and and and all tend to bend back toward it. I mean, look how easy it was to make red cups be about xmas.
In the same way those Starbucks cups were always already about xmas, pop xmas songs that don’t explicitly say anything about Christianity actually reinforce dominant Christian ideology. Calculating the results of a data set I gathered by being alive, I think there are four basic options for what the lyrical content of a xmas song is: 1) Jesus, 2) Santa, 3) omg it’s winter, and 4) love. It’s the last category I want to focus on. I understand why pop stars may not want to sing a song about Jesus (too religious) or Santa (too childish), but what I’m asking here is why they do want to sing a xmas song about love.
One easy answer: “because, like, love is what pop is about.” Okay, fine. That is true, though I could stand a little less snark from you, tbh. Plus, I think there’s more to it.
An answer that’s not at all at odds with the easy one above: “bc we like to reproduce white cisheteropatriarchy.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Lee Edelman, in No Future, calls this reproductive futurism and describes it as
terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations.
In other words, the importance of reproducing and then protecting (white) Children is embedded so deeply in politics that it isn’t even up for debate. It is, instead, the societal framework within which debate happens, and anything outside that framework resonates as queer.
Let’s pivot back to xmas with this idea in mind and think for a minute about the nativity scene. It can be built with a variety of details, but at its center every time is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – baby, mom, and dad. In a reproductive futurist society, recurring images like the nativity scene underscore the normalcy of the nuclear family, regardless of how utterly abnormal the details of the story surrounding the nativity scene might be. I think the heteronormativity of the nativity scene “impose[s] an ideological limit” on the discourse of xmas love songs: every cuddle next to the fireplace, each spark under the mistletoe is a reproduction of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – baby, mom, and dad. What on the surface is simply Mariah Carey’s confession that all she wants for xmas is meeeeeheeeeeeeee becomes miraculously pregnant with a dominant religio-political ideology that delimits queerness and manufactures White Children. That’s why pop stars sing love songs when they don’t want to sing about Jesus and Santa; it’s because the love songs are actually about a Christian ideology that squares comfortably with dominant political discourse even when they don’t explicitly mention religion.
Of course, just because something is a dominant ideology doesn’t mean it’s totalizing. A discourse like queer theory looks and listens for moments of potential disruption in the norm, for what Edelman reads from A Christmas Carol: a Scrooge in the narrative, a “self-denying miser” in the soundscape who loves not according to the logic of the nativity but the joy of negativity, an insistent denial of the desires offered by a world delimited by reproductive futurism. By which I mean, let’s listen to “Last Christmas.”
Cuffing season, an idea the mainstream media have picked up on in recent years and churned into clickbait, is generally defined, as in this urban dictionary entry, as a time when people get into relationships as a way to counter the cold. Perhaps a greater pressure than the cold, however, is the idea that one must not be alone during the holidays. Cuffing season works alongside xmas pop songs and the nativity scene to reenforce reproductive futurity: baby, it’s cold outside, I need a date for all these xmas parties, and hey let’s make a baby Jesus together, huh? In this context, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” becomes the great holiday nightmare: heartbreak, disillusionment, and loneliness. Lyrically, the hook tells us that this year our singer has found someone special, but the verses betray the truth: he’s still hung up on last year’s heartbreak and has already started hoping that, actually, maybe next year will be the one that works out for him.
I think we can push deeper than this lyrical message of hope (strained though it is) and find something a little Scroogier in the mix, a denial of fulfilled desire that projects a queer, non-reproductive future. The structure of the song:
Intro (8 measures) (0:00)
Chorus (16 measures) (0:15)
Post-Chorus (8 measures) (0:53)
Verse 1 (16 measures) (1:11)
Verse 2 (2:41)
Post-Chorus (with partial lyrics from Verse 2) (3:53)
There’s a reason we all know the chorus so well: it’s a double chorus that happens three times. That is, from “Last Christmas” to “someone special” is only 8 measures long, but that quatrain is repeated twice for a 16 measure chorus. So that’s six different times we hear George Michael summarize what happened last Christmas, and it becomes easy to recognize that this is less a celebration of having someone special than it is an attempt to convince oneself of something that isn’t true. When we compound the double chorus with the percussion part, which hits a syncopated turnaround every four measures (the turnaround signifies moving on to a new part; by repeating the same one every four measures in the middle of lyrical monotony, the song suggests a failure to really move on), the effect is one of extreme repetition. We rehearse, over and again, the failure of last xmas, the failure to cuff, the failure to reproduce anything but, well, failure.
What I’ve labeled the Post-Chorus is a bit of an oddity here, a musical interlude played on festive bells that separates Chorus from Verse. The work it performs is best understood in conjunction with the music video. In the video, a group of friends meet to enjoy a getaway at a ski lodge; the character played by George Michael is here with this year’s girlfriend, and last xmas’s girlfriend brings this year’s boyfriend. Intrigue! The visual narrative matches the song. In the same way the jolly instrumental seems largely unaware of Michael’s downer lyrics, the group of friends seem oblivious to the furtive, hurt glances between last xmas’s lovers. This structural oddity, the Post-Chorus, proves key to the visual narrative. I told you there’s a Scrooge in this story, and the Post-Chorus will visit him in the night.
The first Post-Chorus is the ghost of xmas present. As the friends crowd into a ski lift that will take them to their lodging, the first bell hits right as last year’s girlfriend is center screen (0:53 in the video below), and we watch as the friends arrive at their getaway, the final two measures playing over a wide-angle shot of a ridiculously large cabin. The second Post-Chorus is the ghost of xmas past. Here, as everyone gathers around a feast, all holly and jolly, the bells (2:23) strike at the moment Michael catches sight of the pendant he gave last xmas’s girlfriend. He broods. The payoff comes in the second half of Verse 2 (2:59), when we see a flashback to the happy couple the year before, when they frolicked in the snow, lounged by the fire, and exchanged fabulous 80s jewelry. Finally, the third Post-Chorus is the ghost of xmas future. This time the bells strike as the group is hiking back to the ski lift, returning to the point where they began. We hear the Post-Chorus twice this time, and the first instance (3:53) is accompanied by lyrics pulled from the flashback section of Verse 2, where Michael describes himself and the heartless way he’s been treated. This time, though, instead of finishing the line with “now I’ve found a real love, you’ll never fool me again,” Michael can only offer a breathy “maybe…next year.” In this third Post-Chorus, we have future (maybe next year) overlapping with past (the flashback lyrics) accompanied by visuals that close the narrative circle – a return on the same ski lift we see during the first Post-Chorus. In other words, Michael’s character can sing about someone special all he wants, but the song knows last year’s failure to reproduce will repeat again and again. The fourth Post-Chorus hammers this repetition home: as the friends debark from the lift and the screen fades, we hear this xmas ghost haunting, lingering at the edges, reproducing heteronormative failure ad infinitum (the fade in the music suggests there’s no definitive ending point).
George Michael, of course, was publicly closeted for a long time. It’s unsurprising that we see some horror motifs in this heterofest. The wide-angle shot of the isolated cabin, the close up of a brooding, tortured hero. There may well be a queerness in the absence of gendered pronouns and in the visual aesthetic of the music video. But the real disruption, I think, comes in the structural repetition, the rehearsal of the singer’s failure to reproduce each year at the moment that reproduction is most central. If pop xmas love songs circulate in a framework of reproductive futurity, “Last Christmas” Scrooges its way onto the airwaves every year and projects an utter failure of a future.
Most xmas pop songs come and go (“Hi!!! Kylie!!! I’m so excited that you’ve got this album of…yeah? uh huh? oh, okay, you’re just gonna? sure, yeah, okay. kthxbye Kylie!!!”), but a few become classics that not only chart every year (“Last Christmas” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” are probably the stalwarts here) but are covered and covered and covered. There are more versions of “Last Christmas” and “All I Want” than there have been xmases since their releases. I’ll end this post by focusing on Benny Benassi’s “Last Christmas” mix (aside: I think this was released in 2008, but I’d love if someone knows for sure), which captures a different queer futurity in the song.
Benassi’s “Last Christmas” revolves around two main sections: a driving techno beat (A) and a reworking of Wham!’s chorus (B).
A (48 measures)
B (48 measures) (1:25)
A’ (24 measures) (2:22)
B’ (56 measures) (3:04)
A” (32 measures) (4:15)
The A sections include a voiceover from a computerized or triggered voice effected so that it sounds like it’s coming through as an official announcement in…well, I always assume it’s a spaceship. “We would like to know if something does not sound quite right,” she starts, and then preps the entry of section B with “to guarantee safety to your perfect celebration, be sure – when playing this tune at maximum volume level – to chant around like everybody else is.” It’s hard to be more on-the-nose than this: an android voice instructing us how to fit in at our reproductive futurist holiday gatherings. “You know, just…idk, just do what the others are doing?”
The B sections are each a sequence of three “Last Christmas” choruses (B’ includes an extra eight measures of the third in the sequence). The first is a sped-up but otherwise unaltered Michael singing about last xmas. It’s a jarring entry, as the cool machinery of Benassi’s beat suddenly gives way to treacle 80s pop. The second time through the double chorus, we can hear Benassi’s groove faintly in the background and growing louder and fuller toward the end. It’s a straightforward remix technique: here’s the thing, here’s the thing mixed with my beat, and now here’s what I’m really getting at. It’s the third sequence (1:53), then, where Benassi really crafts his own “Last Christmas.” Here, the beat we heard when the android told us how to fit in combines with Michael’s chorus as Benassi stutters and clips not only the lyrics but the instrumental, too: nothing is stable. Michael can’t finish a sentence (“La-a-as-a-ast, I gave you my gave you my hear-. Thiii-i-i-i-is year to save me from save me from, I’ll give it to someone, I’ll give it to someo-o-one.”), and the beat can’t get a firm start. While Wham!’s “Last Christmas” uses the Post-Chorus to form a closed loop where past and future circle back around to each other, Benassi’s “Last Christmas” denies reproductive futurity by chopping off the beginnings and ends of phrases. Built on a simple two-measure loop that otherwise motors smoothly through the song, Benassi’s “Last Christmas” can’t loop in the third sequence of the B section because there’s nothing to latch onto.
Whether by looping failure or failing to loop, both the Wham! and Benassi versions of “Last Christmas” bah and humbug at reproductive futurism. They’re Scroogey reminders each year to listen for disruptions of nativity, refusals of politically delimited desires that are queerly vibrating through our earbuds.