Christmas pop songs tend to revolve around just a few basic topics: 1) Jesus, 2) Santa, 3) Did you notice it’s winter?, and 4) Love. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories, of course. For instance, the overlap between the second and fourth category produce a sub-genre I’d call Santa Kink, exemplified by “Santa Baby” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And the overlap between the first and fourth categories—between Jesus songs and Love songs—is, I would argue, complete overlap. The dominance of Christian ideology in the United States means that even when Christmas pop songs don’t explicitly say anything about Christianity, they are reenforcing dominant Christian ideology all the same. That’s how hegemonies work: hegemonic ideas are always already implicit in a variety of discourses whether those discourses are closely or remotely related to that ideology. So while pop stars may shy away from Christmas songs about Jesus because they don’t want to seem too religious, any song with Christmas as its theme will inherently fold back onto Christian ideology regardless of an artist’s intentions.
So, what does it mean when Love and Jesus overlap in Christmas songs? It’s quintessentially heteronormative: a man, a woman, and a baby who will rescue humanity’s future. But hegemonies aren’t totalizing, so while they dominate discourse, it is possible to craft ontologies that map out other ways of being. Here, I’m going to engage the queerness of “Last Christmas”—the original Wham! version (1984)—and a 2008 Benny Bennasi remix of the original song. What each have in common is a failure to achieve heteronormativity that, in turn, undermines the Love/Jesus trope of Christmas pop songs; this failure orients us toward queer relationalities that plot alternatives to Christian heteronorms.
Looking back at those four categories of Christmas pop songs, three of them make lots of sense for a Christmas song topic: Jesus, Santa, and winter. But why love? In part, it’s because most pop music boils down to love in some way. Beyond that, though, a love song in the context of Christian heteronormative ideology yields what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurity”:
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 heteronormative imperative 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.
Pivoting back to Christmas, it’s instructive to contemplate 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. The heteronormativity of the nativity scene “impose[s] an ideological limit” on the discourse of Christmas love songs: every cuddle next to the fireplace, each spark under the mistletoe, all coercive “Baby, it’s cold outside”s are a reproduction of the christian Holy Family (baby, mom, and dad). What on the surface is simply Mariah Carey’s confession that all she wants for Christmas is you becomes miraculously pregnant with a dominant religio-political ideology that delimits queerness and manufactures White Children. That’s why pop stars sing Christmas love songs when they don’t want to sing about Jesus or Santa or winter; it’s because the love songs buttress a Christian ideology that squares comfortably with dominant political discourse even when they don’t explicitly mention religion.
The texture of my “Last Christmas” analysis is woven from a few theoretical strands. Jack Halberstam’s queer failure and Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomonology each orient us to queer relationalities that emerge from getting heteronormativity wrong. Hortense Spillers’ vestibular flesh and Jayna Brown’s utopian impulses tune us to the vibrations of alterity buzzing just beyond hegemony’s earshot. Taken together, these theories open space for hearing how a Christmas pop song about love might resonate queerly even in the midst of heteronormative dominance. Instead of rehearsing the nativity scene, a queer Christmas pop song might undo, sidestep, detonate, or otherwise fail to recreate the nativity. A queer analysis of Christmas pop songs looks and listens for moments of potential disruption in the norm.
In a reproductive futurist world, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is a 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 structure of the song, a denial of fulfilled desire that projects a queer, non-reproductive future:
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 Christmas, the failure to hetero-love, 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 Christmas’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 Christmas’s lovers. This structural oddity, the Post-Chorus, proves key to the visual narrative. 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 Christmas 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 above), 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 Christmas 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 brooch he gave last Christmas’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 Christmas 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 Christmas 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 Christmas 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 Christmas pop songs come and go. The drive to fill the airwaves with a genre of music that is only functional for 6-8 weeks of the year yields heaps of treacly sonic detritus. Christmas pop songs are, by nature, ephemeral. A few of these songs, though, become classics that artists return to and cover or remix over and again. “Last Christmas” is one of these classics, settling onto November and December playlists in its original form and the myriad cover versions that have piled up over the years. Benny Benassi’s “Last Christmas” remixes the Wham! song in a way that maintains the original’s queerness even as it flips the idea of looping failures.
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 voice affected so that it sounds like some dystopic transmission. “We would like to know if something does not sound quite right,” the voice 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…I don’t know, 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 Christmas. It’s a jarring entry, as the cool machinery of Benassi’s beat suddenly gives way to shimmery 80s pop. The second time through that familiar 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.
While Wham! loops queer failures in their overarching forms, Benassi’s version of the song queerly fails to loop. Both 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.
Featured image: “GOOD BYE and THANK YOU” by Flickr user fernando butcher, CC BY 2.0
Justin aDams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
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— Guest Editor Randolph Jordan
In October of 1973, two young sound recordists embarked on an ambitious field trip across Canada, traversing over 7000 kilometers to commit the national soundscape to tape. From St. John’s, Newfoundland to the harbor of Vancouver, British Columbia, Bruce Davis and Peter Huse pointed their microphones at the things they felt best exemplified their vast country.
These recordings would become the backbone for Soundscapes of Canada, a series of ten hour-long radio programs carried across the country by the national broadcaster, the CBC. Conceived and produced by the World Soundscape Project (WSP)—a research group formed at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s and helmed by the composer and sound theorist, R. Murray Schafer—in its entirety Soundscapes of Canada was an impressively sprawling, eclectic document. Comprised of guided listening exercises and avant-garde sound collages, the program’s stated goal was to open the ears of Canadian listeners to the importance of sonic experience, and to alert them to what they warned was the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity.
But there was much more happening out of earshot. Created at a time when Canada’s cultural identity was rapidly changing thanks to an unprecedented swell in immigration from non-European countries, the WSP’s portrait of the nation all but ignored its First Nations and its “visible minorities,” as they would come to be known. While the series was an important statement in the WSP’s larger efforts to bring sound to the forefront of cultural conversation, it is arguably more important to listen to Soundscapes of Canada for what it leaves out, for voices silent and silenced.
For Schafer, the industrialized world had grown measurably louder and qualitatively noisier, which troubled him for both environmental and social reasons. In his 1977 book, The Tuning of the World, Schafer would write, “For some time, I have…believed that the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society” (7). Given the worryingly poor state of the soundscape, for Schafer it followed that society was in bad shape. He was wistful for quieter times, for the days of Goethe, when the cry of the half-blind night watchman of Weimer was within earshot of every one of the town’s inhabitants. Unstated, but implied, here, was the notion that as communities expanded beyond every member’s ability to hear a familiar sound, their common identity would necessarily be eroded. And for Schafer, this was precisely what was happening to Canada.
The WSP’s discussion of “soundmarks” in parts three and four of the series was perhaps their most powerful statement about the stakes for preserving and promoting the nation’s sonic heritage. A “soundmark” is, in the WSP’s lexicon of neologisms, roughly analogous to a landmark: it’s a sound that is supposedly instantly recognizable to members of a community, an irreplaceable acoustic feature of a particular place. In the conclusion to program three, “Signals, Soundmarks and Keynotes,” Schafer intoned, “It takes time for a sound to take on rich, symbolic character—a lifetime perhaps, or even centuries. This is why soundmarks should not be tampered with carelessly. Change the soundmarks of a culture and you erase its history and mythology. Myths take many forms. Sounds have a mythology too. Without a mythology, a culture dies.”
So it seems fair to ask: exactly whose mythology stood to be snuffed out? For Schafer, Canadian culture was (or ought to be) synechdochal with the land, with the nation’s vast, largely uninhabited expanses that stretched all the way to the North Pole. Canadians were (or ought to be) a rugged, self-reliant people—stoic pioneers who shunned cosmopolitan (read ethnic) urban centers, opting for a quiet life in harmony with the country’s settler heritage. This was certainly reflected in program four, “Soundmarks of Canada.” Over the course of an hour CBC listeners would have heard an austere montage almost entirely comprised of mechanical alarms (foghorns and air sirens) and church bells. Each sound presented, carefully, discreetly as though displayed in a museum, free from any traffic noise or sidewalk bustle that might distract the listener. Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk.
“Soundmarks of Canada” not only omitted the soundmarks of Canadian cities, it also excluded any sonic trace of the country’s vibrant ethnic and First Nations communities. Produced in the years following the passage of the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy of Canada—which had been adopted in response to a boom of immigration from non-European nations—their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot. It should also go without saying that the soundmarks they so prized were deeply entangled with a silencing of Canada’s indigenous population; of a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “reeducation” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools—church-run institutions to which countless children were spirited away against their parents and communities’ wishes.
This is not to say that any of this was intentional, that the WSP deliberately plugged their ears to Canada’s marginal communities, or that they intended to slight these groups in any way. It may be more accurate to ascribe ignorance and omission to the project, structural forms of inequality that dog even the most well meaning white settlers. Regardless of intent, however, the result is the same.
Soundscapes of Canada shows a troubling politics of self-recognition in action that is far too common throughout the nation’s history. By disproportionately representing the voices and sounds of European Canadians the series necessarily supported the idea that they were, if not the only ones, then at least “ordinary” and incumbent. Projects like these promote and condition a sense of unity and similarity that constitute the nation’s imagination of itself. Benedict Anderson famously observed that nations come into being and are maintained through the cultural work that leads its citizens to identify with the state. Institutions and practices from censuses, maps, nationally available print journalism, etc. all allow people in far-off locales to imagine themselves constituting a limited and sovereign community. In his classic book, Imagined Communities, Anderson proposes that nations have also historically been conceived, created, and ratified through sound. Writing specifically of national anthems, Anderson coins the term “unisonance” to describe the power that sound can have to seemingly erode the boundaries between self and other: “How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound” (149).
It is significant that the WSP chose the radio—the CBC in particular—as the vehicle for their ambitious project. In the mid-1970s, not only did radio offer the widest reach of any sonic medium, but it also had a particular cultural resonance for Canadians. A nation as vast and varied as Canada could have only come about thanks to mediation; its vastness has always required means of traversing or shrinking space to secure its borders, both psychic and geographical. The westward expansion of the post-indigenous nation was accomplished first by canoe, then by rail, and, beginning in the 1920s, by radio. Appropriately, it was the Canadian National Railway (CNR) that produced the first transnational radio broadcast in 1927—the national anthem performed by bells on the carillon of the Peace Tower—broadcasting the event to railway passengers and home listeners alike. Since the middle part of the 20th century, the national broadcaster has been understood as something of a bulwark against encroaching American culture.
The history of the Canadian airwaves is profoundly mired in struggles to promote, produce, and foster content that might keep the national identity from being completely subsumed under the sprawl and heft of the American culture industry. Schafer had mixed feelings about the medium. On the one hand, he was skeptical of his one-time teacher and mentor, Marshall McLuhan’s, analysis that radio, by its very nature, enfolded listeners in a shared acoustic space, effectively “retribalizing” society. Schafer felt that the airwaves had been packed to such a dense and frenetic level that they actually created “sound walls” that effectively isolated listeners in their own solipsistic, acoustic bubbles. But there was hope for the radio in that it could also facilitate a return to a more wholesome and connected state of being and of listening. Schafer noted this duality in his essay “Radical Radio,” writing, “If modern radio overstimulates, natural rhythms could help put mental and physical well-being back in our blood. Radio may, in fact, be the best medium for accomplishing this” (209). Sonic technology was a source of ambivalence for Schafer; he coined the term “schizophonia” to describe the separation of sound from source that recording effected. He believed that it was problematic to populate the world with copies he deemed inherently inferior to the “original” sonic event. Given the opportunity to reach such a wide swath of the Canadian public, Schafer swallowed his distaste for the schizophonic medium and offered a sonic missive on how to compose a healthy and prosperous nation.
Forty years on, Soundscapes of Canada still stands as a unique experiment in imagining how to build and maintain a nation through sound. But in the same regard it also serves as a troubling reminder of how sonic media can work to occlude the voices of marginal citizens, thereby preventing them from fully finding the place in the national soundscape, simply by ignoring their soundmarks and aural practices. If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.
Readers interested in listening to the full series can stream all ten episodes through the website of the Canadian Music Centre.
Mitchell Akiyama is a Toronto-based scholar, composer, and artist. His eclectic body of work includes writings about plants, animals, cities, and sound art; scores for film and dance; and objects and installations that trouble received ideas about perception and sensory experience. Akiyama recently completed his Ph.D. in communications at McGill University. His doctoral work offers a critical history of sound recording in the field and examines an eclectic range of subjects, from ethnographers recording folksongs in southern American penal work camps to biologists trying determine whether or not animals have language to the political valences of sound art practices.
Featured image: “Toronto” by Flickr user Kristel Jax. All other images via the author.
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