This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Make the Yuletide Gay
If I had to pinpoint the exact moment in this last four-year hellscape when I was reminded there was still hope for humanity, it would probably be when we sent “All I Want For Christmas Is You” to number one.
You might think this is a gay’s attention-craving hyperbole, and, well, yes it absolutely is. But it is also a reminder of the feeling of “oh wow, that’s actually a really nice thing!” that has risked extinction in recent times—the rare warming of the heart that’s kept it from succumbing to a hypothermic death-by-freezing.
It was a long-overdue triumph of justice when Mariah Carey’s indelible Christmas hit finally topped the charts. What better treat is there each season than to have your spirits lifted by holiday music, and who could deny that the elusive chanteuse’s modern contribution to the canon deserves vaunted status?
Now that we accomplished that, it’s time to set our eyes on the next great mission. Let’s do it with Kelly Clarkson, too.
“All I Want For Christmas Is You” is now safe in its holiday domination and celebration. It’s time to turn our attention to “Underneath the Tree,” which ranks alongside Carey’s hit as the strongest modern-pop addition to the playlist of holiday classics.
While “All I Want For Christmas Is You” lulls you with that quiet, dramatic, exaggerated tease, “Underneath the Tree” wastes just seconds of throat-clearing before it cannon-blasts you with its wall of sound. Carey has made a meme out of the anticipation for it to be seasonally appropriate to listen to her song, tsk-ing “not yet” before it’s close enough to the holidays. “Underneath the Tree,” then, is like premature ejaculation for the horniest of Christmas-music enthusiasts: “IT’S HAPPENING NOW!”
Both songs achieve the marvel of sounding both current and nostalgically retro. (I guess you would call that timeless.) They invoke the ’60s, Phil Spector-esque assault of brass and vocals, but with the polish of a modern-era pop-star voice.
The messages of the two songs are as innocuous as they are relatable. They’re about longing and the comfort of cozy love with the ultimate Christmas gift: a person to share the holiday with. It’s a malleable message. It works if you already have a Christmas boo, if you have a crush that you hope reaches out over the holidays, or if you’re wistful for a former, or absent, lover.
That’s the cleverness of both songs, and why “Underneath the Tree” is so shrewd in following in the footsteps of “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” These are joyous songs when you want them to be. But, like the best Christmas music, there are excruciating pangs of melancholy for those who need to hear them.
For every jolly “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” stalwart, there’s someone earnestly messaging Kacey Musgraves to re-record her rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to include the original lyrics “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” instead of the more optimistic “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Let the holidays be sad as intended!
Clarkson sings, “Presents, what a beautiful sight / Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t holding me tight / You’re all that I need / Underneath the tree.” Is she grateful that her love is back with her for the holidays? Is she wistfully singing about the one she lost and wishes were here with her now? It’s up for interpretation! Just as is the “you” that Mariah Carey wants for Christmas.
But whether bitter remorse or ecstatic swooning, these songs work because they’re perfect pop hooks, sung by perfect pop stars.
In some ways, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” reaching number one last year was the certification of Carey’s forever-legend status. Clarkson isn’t there yet, but she’s carving a path as an icon that reflects the new, turbulent age of forging a music career of that stature.
There’s obviously the industry turning point of her rise to fame spawned by a reality-TV singing competition. There’s the fight for legitimacy she had to earn because of that platform. There’s been the proof-is-in-the-voice triumph of continued success in spite of a trend toward autotune and image. And then there’s, especially lately, the diversification: Clarkson has roughly 47 jobs, including being the most-liked talk-show host since pre-scandal Ellen.
A hit Christmas song is, in the music industry, a bit of a coronation. And who deserves it more than our queen, Kelly Clarkson?