by Tom Keiser
Christmas songs are designed to be catchy, annoying and vaguely reminiscent of winter. The most successful are horrible holiday earworms, such as “Wonderful Christmastime” and “Heat Miser/Snow Miser.” But one song is so overplayed and over-covered and so mediocre to begin with that it makes the rest sound like “White Christmas.” Its recent exclusion from the A/V Club’s recent list of worst Christmas songs is a gross injustice to the holidays and to musicdom in general.
“Last Christmas,” written by George Michael and first performed by Wham! in 1984, is a wallowing mess of a song. It mistakes self-indulgence for closure. It contains a synthy falseness that would make even Paul McCartney and Wings wince. And with all that, still “Last Christmas” is an okay song — compared to the countless covers one is subjected to during the holidays. There are, to date, nearly 500 of them.
The emo generation of the last decade co-opted “Last Christmas” as their own; Jimmy Eat World’s cover was the first time that many people who weren’t around in the late-early 80s discovered it. And then its status as a Muzak standard further turned it into an object of hatred. “I heard at least 5 different versions and I thought that was weird,” said Alex Liebold of Last Christmas, which chronicles the ruthless rise of this new holiday standard.
Now it’s five years and 485 versions of “Last Christmas” later. “It’s hard to listen to the same song over and over even it’s by different people,” said Liebold, who works in advertising when not hearing the same song over and over. “There are guys who keep asking me about the song and I basically do it because they love it.”
Jon Solomon is known for the annual 24-hour Christmas music marathon he does on Princeton University’s radio station, WPRB. He works months in advance to find music for this tradition.
“For whatever reason, covers of ‘Last Christmas’ that pop up along the way have become one of my least favorite parts of previewing recordings for my 24-Hour Holiday Radio Show,” he wrote. “Listening to ‘Last Christmas’ is like having a fairly unpleasant-tasting syrup cover you drip by drip down the top of your head.”
“The idea of listening to all 479 versions of the song gives me actual chills,” Solomon wrote. (Bad news: there’s been six new versions since we corresonded.) “So many people sing it like they’re in a community theater’s musical.”
Somewhere during Jon Solomon’s impassioned invective against “Last Christmas,” he realized that his record label, My Pal God, included “Last Christmas” in a holiday compilation in 1998.
In general, most of these covers don’t make it out in the wild. I regularly hear only three versions of ‘Last Christmas.” I can’t even pinpoint the artist, but I’m guessing Wham!, Ashley Tisdale and Satan.
Still, some versions of “Last Christmas” are better than others. Liebold likes variations on a theme: “The worst in general are the straight covers of the original…. It’s just pretty boring. You might as well listen to the original.” When pressed for good versions, he suggests covers by Sasketchewan and Minuteman.
Minuteman’s version, he said, has “real flow and builds from beginning to end into something.”
And then there are people who aren’t annoyed by what Wham! have wrought. Purists who, of course, prefer the original.
“OMG, of course! GEORGE MICHAEL FOREVER,” wrote Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston, by digital means. “i have been team wham! since i wrote ‘maura ❤s wham!’ on my copy of ‘make it big’ in second grade.” And who hasn’t ❤’d Wham!? George Michael, circa “Faith,” was a deep generational mancrush. Watching old solo and Wham!-era videos now, Mr. Panagiotou is simultaneously cheesy and sexy — and aware of it. But the song’s problems are thornier. What holiday is “Last Christmas” commemorating, anyway? It could very well be called “Last Birthday” or “Last Festivus” or “Last Freedom ‘90.” A criminally neglected Facebook page even states the case upfront: “Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ IS NOT A CHRISTMAS SONG!” Though it’s not the only holiday song of that ilk. “Jingle Bells,” originally written with Thanksgiving in mind, has no mention at all of any holiday — although also its lyrics don’t devolve into lovelorn self-pity. At least with Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which also features George Michael, they actually state, at the very beginning, that it is indeed Christmastime.
It actually doesn’t matter if “Last Christmas” has much to do with the birth of Jesus Christ or the arrival of Santa Claus. The holidays are about withstanding annoyances small and large in order to be/because of being with loved ones; to make sure that the good will outweigh the bad. The “someone special” George Michael is singing about may be about as real as his love for the girl in the video, but he at least partially realizes that love is what the holidays are all about. Now, if only barking dogs could cover “Last Christmas.”