Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Last Christmas": You Don't Want To Know What's In George Michael's Stocking

There's a very short list of Christmas songs that don't make me dry heave: Elvis' "Blue Christmas," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," Weird Al's "Christmas At Ground Zero" ... that might be about it. Well, I'm feeling generous, so let's make room for "Last Christmas." Why does Wham!'s contribution to this highly suspect genre make the cut? You could say that, in the spirit of irritatingly catchy Christmas songs, the chorus repeats and repeats and refuses to go away, sort of like Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogies. The chord progression is your standard '50s-style melody that's been used a thousand times before; according to Wikipedia, the publishers of Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" actually sued for plagiarism, and although I can arguably see the resemblance, that's almost like George Lucas suing J.K. Rowling for using a young male protagonist as the centerpiece of a story about good vs. evil (the case was eventually settled out of court). No, I think "Last Christmas" avoids my Christmas music wrath because instead of being a facile celebration of WASPy good tidings, it's actually a bitter break-up song. This is one depressing Christmas single:
Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year to save me from tears
I'll give it to someone special

Once bitten and twice shy
I keep my distance but you still catch my eye
Tell me baby do you recognize me?
Well it's been a year, it doesn't surprise me

(Happy Christmas) I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying "I love you," I meant it
Now I know what a fool I've been
But if you kissed me now I know you'd fool me again
In other words, the guy got his heart broken ... on Christmas! That is fucked .... up. Instead of churning out the standard "peace and goodwill" holiday cheer, George Michael wrote about the shittiest Christmas ever, and how he trusted that girl (or guy?), and how once upon a time he believed in snowflakes and candy canes and little green elves, but now he knows that the world is a cold and heartless place, and our lives are all nasty, brutish, and short, and that he's never going to have faith in the human race again. Now this is a Christmas song I can get behind. Plus, as with most Wham! songs, he's been very creative with the vocal overdubs, layering a soft, fluttery army of Georges behind a characteristically soulful lead.

It seemed like a surefire Christmas #1 (which in the UK is actually a thing), but then Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had to go and release their damn "Do They Know It's Christmas" guiltfest and spoil Wham!'s holiday cheer. Then again, George Michael also sang on "Do they Know It's Christmas," so in a sense, he spoiled himself.

The video is your one and only chance to see George Michael in a parka. Wham! sure seemed to get around; this time they absconded to Switzerland for a weekend of skiing and gondola riding. Wikipedia helpfully explains the plot of secret romantic intrigue:
It becomes clear early on that the character of Ridgeley's girlfriend (played by model Kathy Hill) was previously in a relationship with Michael, and that the song is aimed at her... There is a brief flashback to "Last Christmas" showing Michael's character presenting her with a jewelled brooch. In the present time, Ridgeley is wearing the brooch, suggesting that the girl gave the same gift to her new love after her and Michael parted ways. On numerous occasions Michael presents a thoughtful, confused expression, suggesting his conflicting emotions... Her seeming indifference to Ridgeley's open displays of affection makes the viewer wonder if Ridgeley's heart is the next to be broken. However, at the end of the video everyone leaves properly "paired off," so perhaps it's being suggested that Michael has worked out his conflicts and confusion and now realizes he is after all with the right girl.
Actually, I think I know what happened here: she found out that he's not exactly that "kind of guy." Last Christmas, he gave her a Barbra Streisand album and a book of pastry recipes, and she started getting a little suspicious. And doesn't he look a little too excited about decorating the Christmas tree? And maybe all those mountain peaks are phallic symbols? In his trailblazing analysis, Prof. Higglediggle expands upon this theme:
Perhaps Wham!'s most polymorphous gesture of moral subterfuge, "Last Christmas," regarded in its day as a lightweight holiday novelty, was a reified attack on the Judeo-Christian social order. Opening a neologistic dialectic on this most sacred of religious holidays, Michael situated his deviant lifestyle as an invocation for ritual play, turning the usual ode to the Lord and Savior into veiled swipe at homosocial bonding. "Last Christmas" wrestles with the holy firmament beneath the British (mono)theistic ethos, normalizing the sinful and banishing the conventional. One could argue, although I hesitate to do so, that for a homosexual to pen a musical work intended as a tribute to the celebration of the birth of the Son of God was a new form of codified blasphemy, rivaling the impact, in the European tradition, only of Caravaggio's Saint Matthew and the Angel or Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. However, one would have to recontextualize the presence of a post-Marxist interpretive framework, which may simply not be present here.

1 comment:

Herr Zrbo said...

When I was living in Europe I was surprised how popular this song was. Around Christmas time (speaking of which, seems you could have waited a few more months to make this post more timely) this songs is on EVERYWHERE and all the Europeans know all the words. It's kind of strange really. In the states I think I might hear this song once a holiday season.