I am a proud lover of Christmas pop music. Whether it’s New Kids On the Block’s “Funky, Funky, Xmas,” Taylor Swift’s “Christmas Tree Farm,” or Doja Cat’s cover of “Santa Baby,” give me a holiday tune by a popular artist and I’ll eat it up.
But I think we can all agree: different Christmas pop songs occupy very different roles within our holiday playlists. To that end, I’d like to propose three main categories of Christmas tunes. The first is Christmas comfort music, which encompasses songs that sound like cuddling under a blanket in front of a fire. Others feel more like the ugly Christmas sweater you might proudly wear to family gatherings—these are the tunes I lovingly call Christmas cringe. Still others have the taste of the 18th-century figgy pudding recipe I annually concoct during the holiday season; these are the Christmas cosplay songs that recreate the musical aesthetics of bygone eras.
Each category has a special place in the pantheon of holiday music, but each also has its own unique relationship to how pop music is composed, and to the sounds American audiences have been trained to associate with Christmas. And taking a deeper dive into how these different tunes tug at our holiday heartstrings can even predict how the genre might change over the next few years, giving us a glimpse into our Christmas musical futures.
There’s been much said about how to write a song that sounds convincingly Christmas-y; it’s a nostalgic holiday, so it often means evoking memories of childhood. Due to a mixture of the baby boom, the increased consumption of pop music in the 1950s and ’60s, and the racial dynamics of holiday music production, generations of Americans spent their childhoods listening to pre-rock “Traditional” American pop music at Christmastime—the Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole version of Christmas.
The upshot? From Thanksgiving to New Years, grocery stores, office parties, and streaming services train us to associate Christmas with mid-century crooners singing over full orchestras that outline 1960s doo-wop shuffling harmonies—with, of course, bells.
This poses a problem for contemporary pop artists who use dramatically different sounds, harmonies, melodies, and rhythms. What it means to sound convincingly Now means something very different than it means to sound Christmas-y.
A TikTok video I made with producer Helkin Sosa, singer Heloise Goncalves, and designer Holly Broderick demonstrates the distance between Now pop music and Christmas music. We start with a short 21st-century pop lick and morph it into something that sounds Christmas-y, changing the chords, the rhythm, and the instruments along the way. (And yes, we add bells.)
We can imagine each of these changes as a stop on a train running between Now music and Christmas music. If an artist changes their signature boom-bat beat to the shuffling swing evocative of Burl Ives-style Traditional Pop, they’ve traveled one stop toward the Christmas depot. If they add orchestra instruments to their otherwise sparse band, the artist has traveled another stop. Depending on how different an artist’s native sound is from the archetypal Christmas combination, the more stops they’ll need to travel to make a Christmas song. For instance, there are many stops between a hip-hop or EDM artist’s musical station and the Christmas terminal, while a music theater performer has to travel a much smaller distance. Here’s a GIF (linked to a video with sound) to illustrate what I mean:
The different ways musicians negotiate this holiday train ride creates my three categories of Christmas music. Christmas comfort music is by artists who are natural neighbors to the terminal station, sounding comfortable because their tunes both conform to our expectations about that artist and about Christmas music. Michael Bublé, Norah Jones, and Pentatonix all fall into this category. Even pop artists who use nostalgic sounds in their own musical voices can produce Christmas comfort; Meghan Trainor clearly holds a commuter pass to the mid-century doo-wop sound, so when she continues a few more stops, it feels like she’s traveled very little distance indeed.
Christmas cosplay songs take longer treks to arrive at the Christmas sound. Because these artists change nearly everything about their musical style, they are essentially “doing a bit” with their holiday music. When Doja Cat covers “Santa Baby” in a Marilyn Monroe homage, or the Jonas Brothers open their original holiday song “Like It’s Christmas” with a barbershop trio, these artists are scrapping their Now sounds to put on a Traditional Pop costume.
Third—and my absolute favorite—is the ugly sweater of holiday music: Christmas cringe. These are the artists whose musical style is based many miles from the Christmas sound, but who don’t make the full journey. Lady Gaga’s 2010 single “Christmas Tree” imports the EDM sound of her mid-aughts hits and simply adds intermittent sleigh bells. By using a doo-wop chord progression but keeping all other aspects of her signature pop sound, Britney Spears travels only a single stop when she sings “My Only Wish.” This illustrious category also includes such bops as Destiny’s Child’s “8 Days of Christmas,” Stray Kids’ “Christmas EveL,” and Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas In Hollis.” These songs embrace the dissonance between their artist’s styles and the sounds we associate with Christmas to create the beautifully tacky mismatch that is Christmas cringe.
My Christmas Music Quadrants infographic above maps all these holiday songs according to how much they sound like Traditional Christmas Pop and how much they sound like the artist’s signature style (followed by a TikTok below that samples some sounds in each quadrant). Comfort tunes sound both like the artist’s Now style and like the dulcet intonations of Rosemary Clooney. And while cringe songs sound like the artist but unlike Dean Martin, cosplay does the opposite.
Overall, this musical map shows contemporary pop artists staking out various different territories between their Now sounds and a stereotypical Christmas sound. The result is a musical Christmas tree that mixes blown-glass family heirlooms (the cosplay trinkets of past times), with this year’s Hallmark signature ornaments (a contemporary comfortable tradition) and that tacky surfing Santa ornament you picked up in Boca Raton (a delightful hint of cringe).
The graph also illustrates a fourth possibility. Christmas conversations evoke holiday nostalgia without referencing Traditional Pop. These tunes neither resonate exactly with the artist’s 11-months-of-the-year sound, nor do they resemble a Judy Garland standard. When the Backstreet Boys reference their ’90s sound in “Together,” or Moonalice’s “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year” uses a Barry White-esque funk/disco style, they end up in this quadrant.
These beautifully non-conforming Christmas conversations remind us that Traditional Pop can’t hold its monopoly on Christmas forever. So much of recent music has foregrounded sounds from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and TikTok has encouraged a surge of popularity in late 20th-century music. As America’s listening audience discover nostalgia in a wider variety of sounds, Christmas music will become increasingly located within the Christmas conversations quadrant—at least, that’s my prediction.
While I doubt the sound of Traditional Pop will recede into obscurity anytime soon, I look forward to hearing my childhood—not only my parents’ and grandparents’—reflected in Christmas music. These new experiments will indeed be a delightful addition to our collective musical Christmas trees.