By Sean Ross
Why does a new song become a Christmas hit, especially when it’s so hard to create a “new” holiday song? For the same reason, apparently, that any phenomenal song reaches mainstream pop radio from beyond the usual realm of consideration: because a label wanted it to happen.
Last year, Kelly Clarkson’s new “Underneath The Tree” pushed its way into the twenty most played songs at AC, a neighborhood typically populated by much older songs. Clarkson’s song was well-calculated for AC: a core artist working the retro-Spector ’60s style that has come to signify holiday music since “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But RCA also made it known to radio that they wanted the airplay. That’s a commitment that few major labels make, lest it distract from their other priorities.
On Monday, Republic released the new Ariana Grande holiday single, “Santa Tell Me.” The subject line of the promotional email blast was “the first #1 holiday pop song in 20 years is here.” On Tuesday, the trade ads made clear that the song was “impacting Top 40, Hot AC, and AC radio now.” It also featured major call letters, including New York’s Z100, Chicago’s B96, Miami’s Y100, and Milwaukee’s Kiss 103.7.
Grande has had four top 10 hits since spring, if you count her appearance on Jessie J’s “Bang Bang.” The fourth, “Love Me Harder” just cracked the top 10. In addition, Epic put out a holiday original, “I’ll Be Home,” by Meghan Trainor, even as her second single, “Lips Are Movin’,” continues to build. And Disney has taken trade ads on behalf of “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” from “Frozen,” urging PDs to think of it as a holiday song. The lead artist on “Snowman,” Kristen Bell, is also represented on the new Straight No Chaser single, “Text Me Merry Christmas.”
It’s significant that Republic wanted to go for a holiday single. If anything, it’s a way to further establish Grande as a significant enough artist to generate interest with a holiday original. (Taylor Swift’s holiday airplay is for a pair of standards, “Last Christmas” and “Santa Baby”). And it’s sooner in Grande’s career arc than either Mariah Carey or Wham, acts that managed equally rare holiday breakthroughs in the ’80s and ’90s respectively.
Edison’s Holiday Gift
For our part, over the last decade that Edison Research has done holiday music testing, we’ve been very cognizant of how songs move in or out of the holiday canon. As with “Do You Want To Build A Snowman,” we’ve also noticed that not every song has to be holiday themed. For “My Favorite Things,” which emerged as a reliable tester, it was the mere combination of references to winter weather and a movie often enjoyed around the holidays.
In our most recent holiday music test, we were curious about what other songs might work. We included a number of transcendent songs that had appropriately warm sentiments, but weren’t necessarily holiday related. Two tested playable – “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and “One Love”/”People Get Ready” by Bob Marley. Then there was “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, which came back top 15.
That song has baffled PDs in recent years. It hasn’t ever been a sonic fit for most of the stations that play it. Most Classic Hits and Adult Contemporary stations have contemporized and few PDs want to play an odd MOR holdover from the mid ’60s. But unless yours is the first all-holiday station to draw a hardline on Burl Ives and Andy Williams, there are no fit issues at Christmas, and no reasons not to play a great-testing song of holiday goodwill. Consider it your holiday gift from Edison.