It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas
Last week, the Edison Research Group released preliminary results of a survey asking women aged 30 to 49 about their favorite Christmas songs on the radio. Before we get to the survey results themselves, let's answer another question: Why women 30-49? In one way or another, most radio station programmers are trying to reach women. A station attracting primarily male listeners is going to have a harder time attracting advertisers than one attracting primarily female listeners, unless maybe the station is doing sports talk or hard rock. It's presumed that in any given market, there are probably slightly more women than men; women tend to be more active listeners to music radio then men. Female listeners are why classic rock stations stop their momentum dead to play "We've Got Tonite" by Bob Seger; female listeners are why Bob and Tom and Howard Stern are never heard on adult contemporary stations.
Because women aged 30-49 tend to make up the largest female segment of the audience, their musical preferences are of great interest to radio stations 365 days a year, so it's no wonder somebody finally asked them about Christmas music. The favorite songs on the list are pretty predictable. Edison hasn't released the full list yet (and may not, at least not to people unwilling to pay for it), but USA Today reported the top 10 last week, and I'll repeat it here, with my usual high-quality commentary.
1. "The Christmas Song"/Nat King Cole. Yeah, OK. This is Number One on my personal list, too. It sets the quintessential holiday mood better than any other record. The Mrs. and I used to put it on our answering machine every year, and the holiday season doesn't officially begin at our house until The Ceremonial Nat Crank. Trivia question: This song has a parenthetical title. What is it? Answer to come.
2. "A Holly Jolly Christmas"/Burl Ives. From the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this provides serious nostalgia for everybody in the demographic Edison surveyed. It always makes me think of the old Norelco commercials with Santa riding an electric razor downhill like it was a sleigh, done in the same stop-motion animation style as the Rudolph special.
3. "O Holy Night"/Celine Dion. This is the newest song on the list, and since it came out after I left radio, I've managed to avoid it. This is one of the loveliest of Christmas carols, though--Aaron Neville does a magnificent version of it on Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas, which came out in 1993. The Edison survey picked Eric Cartman's South Park version as the least-favorite holiday song, although its inclusion in the survey sounds like a ringer to me.
4. "Jingle Bell Rock"/Bobby Helms. The endurance of this song for 47 years is a bit hard to figure, although it goes down well on both AC and country formats, and two generations of airplay momentum is not to be trifled with.
5. "Happy Xmas (War is Over)"/John Lennon. A multi-format monster, and an eternal novelty, given that Lennon is really the last person you'd expect to sing about Christmas.
6. "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas"/Johnny Mathis. I usually associate Mathis with "Sleigh Ride," and this with Perry Como, but that's just me. Both Mathis and Como are definitely in the pantheon of artists who get their peak airplay during December. (Andy Williams, too, and if I had to bet on what was Number 11 on Edison's survey, I'd pick "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.")
7. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"/Brenda Lee. Another AC/country crossover a la Bobby Helms, but beware--all other versions are to be avoided, except maybe Amy Grant's, which is OK.
8. "The Little Drummer Boy"/Harry Simeone Chorale. What was it about the 1950s that made choral cheese so popular? This original recording is fine, but all versions by other artists are to be avoided like ancient fruitcake.
9. "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!"/Dean Martin. If you need to experience Dean's lounge-lizard persona in a ski-lodge setting, this will do it. "Let it Snow," like "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland," "Happy Holiday," and a few others, is not specifically a Christmas song--and so one year, my radio station got the idea of continuing to play such generic winter songs for a few days after Christmas. The phones blew out--with grateful listeners. Many radio stations dump Christmas music entirely by mid-afternoon on December 25. We discovered that not everybody is ready to let it go so soon, particularly when Christmas falls on a weekend and family celebrations may occur on the 26th or 27th.
10. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"/Carpenters. Again, not the song I associate with them--that would be "Merry Christmas Darling," although both songs are from the Carps' Christmas Portrait album, which is better than you might expect. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a Judy Garland song to me, with its original World War II lyrics: "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight" and "Someday soon we all will be together if the fates allow/Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow."
Last year, I wrote extensively about my personal holiday favorites, which you can read here. Somewhere I have a snarky bit about the worst holiday music you hear on the radio this time of year. I'll have to dig that up, too.
Trivia Answer: You'd probably bet the house that the parenthetical title of Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" is "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"--and you would lose your house. It's actually "Merry Christmas to You."