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The business of Christmas music and why some songs become classics


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: Right now Christmas music seems to be everywhere on the radio in stores and in waiting rooms but if history is any guide it will essentially disappear on Tuesday even though it's
The radio in stores and in waiting rooms, but if history is any guide, it will essentially disappear on Tuesday. Even though its lifespan is the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Christmas music is a big part of the music industry.

Nate Sloan is an assistant professor of Musicology at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. He's also the co-host of a podcast called Switched on Pop.

Nate, what is it about Christmas music that makes it so popular that makes people love it so?

Nate Sloan, University of Southern California, Thornton School of Music: I think the main thing is that it sounds different from the things that you hear the rest of the year on radio. Christmas music is nostalgic. It's from a different era. It uses acoustic instruments. You hear voices like Bing Crosby and Brenda Lee. It stands out from business as usual in the American music industry.

John Yang: I mean, you mentioned Bing Crosby and Brenda Lee, I mean, that brings up another point is that so much of the Christmas music is old. Is comes from like the 40s or 50s. The top five records on the Billboard Hot 100. This past week, are all Christmas songs. Three of them are performed by artists who are no longer living.

Why is that? Is it that new music isn't being written, it just doesn't measure up?

Nate Sloan: The oldness of this music is part of its appeal. Because Christmas, the holidays. This is a time when you crave familiarity and comfort. And so the fact that these artists are the same ones that you've been hearing your entire life is exactly why they've retained such popularity.

John Yang: And it seems like every artist feels the need or has to do a Christmas album. I mean, when I look back, there was a heavy metal album with Alice Cooper. There was a hip hop album was Snoop Dogg. And of course a few years ago, there was a Bob Dylan album.

Why do the artists feel the need to do this? Or why do they do it?

Nate Sloan: Well, as you said, John, it's very difficult to join this exclusive club of Christmas hitmakers. But if you're able to do so, this can be a very lucrative proposition. Because it means that year after year, people will be listening to downloading streaming, playing on radio, your music. And if you are able to join that club, that's a really great place to be as an artist.

John Yang: Well, we can't talk about year after year without talking about Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You.

This is a song that was written almost three decades ago. And it's number one on the Billboard Top 100. What's it -- what explains it staying power?

Nate Sloan: Well, I think there's a few things with Mariah Carey song. I think one thing is you have to credit her as a songwriter. And as a performer. Her vocals are incredible. She's able to reach these stratospheric notes that few other singers can.

Also, the song was used in a really popular film Love Actually that was released in 2003. So people watch that film, and that reinforces the popularity of the song. And I think third, the song has so many hallmarks of classic Christmas music in terms of its instrumentation, in terms of its harmonies. So it really fits comfortably alongside Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and all these other Christmas greats.

John Yang: You're a musicologist and I think we've talked about a lot of little bits and pieces here. But pull it all together. What makes a great Christmas song?

Nate Sloan: Okay, I think you need a few essential elements. One is there should be some sleigh bells in there. It also helps if you have a nice string orchestra, some lush orchestral accompaniment, and then you want to have more complex harmonies than you usually hear on the popular music charts. The kind of harmonies that people like Irving Berlin wrote in his song White Christmas.

That really sends you back to this era of the Great American Songbook, when many of these Christmas classics were written.

John Yang: That's the classics. Are there any new songs or newer Christmas songs that have drawn your attention?

Nate Sloan: Well, I've been noting that Kelly Clarkson's 2013 hit Underneath the Tree is currently at number 11 on the Billboard charts.

So after a decade of growing popularity, I think Kelly Clarkson is poised to join this this pantheon of Christmas hitmakers.

John Yang: Nate what's your favorite Christmas song?

Nate Sloan: I'm partial to Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. To me this song is all about deceptive simplicity. It's so easy to sing. It rolls off the tongue.

Once you start to play it on piano, and I'm a piano, so I love to play during the holidays. You notice Oh, there's some really clever harmonies and rhythms here. And I think that keeps us coming back to that song year after year.

John Yang: Nate Sloan of the University of Southern California. Thank you very much.

Nate Sloan: Thanks for having me.

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