Anyone who has been forced to endure American public radio in December is familiar with the usual parade of old Christmas hits; many recorded with big bands and famous period singers from the 40s and 50s onward. But, aside from modern reworkings of old songs like "Silver Bells" and "Silent Night," two original Christmas songs survived the synthetic, neoliberal capitalist wave pools of the 80s and 90s: Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas is You," and Wham!'s "Last Christmas."
Since its release in 1984, "Last Christmas" has sold more than 1.77 million copies in the UK alone, and has been covered countless times in several languages across the world -- most recently by "Call Me Maybe" hitmaker Carly Rae Jepsen in support of her new album EMOTION. It is an odd staple of holiday radio; while it is certainly not the only holiday classic to deal with loneliness, alienation and more mature themes like adultery, it is one of the few holiday pop standards to evoke issues of gay loneliness and alienation -- possibly being the only gay popular Christmas song.
And indeed, "Last Christmas" seems to chug valiantly along with a metallic, iron-tasting grief, like curling up alone beside an aluminum tree on a rainy Christmas eve. There is literally nothing in the song to evoke any festiveness besides a sprinkling of silver bells and the word "Christmas" itself. It is both sublime and utterly devastating -- Michael's falsettos, whispering grief in a melody almost Greensleeves-like in its simplicity survive the datedness of its synthetic 80s sheen. It is as immaculate a pop song as it is a modern Christmas carol; no universal tidings of peace, but the gentle closing of a door on a massive, personal wound.
There is no shortage of sad Christmas songs, and there certainly is no shortage of covers of "Last Christmas" that fail to dig deeper into the song's pine-scented layers of melancholy. Bing Crosby was writing tributes to soldiers who missed spending Christmas with their families in the '40s, and Elvis was warbling about blue Christmases in the 60s. While it's too early to tell whether streams or sales of Carly Rae Jepsen's cover will the days of anyone at her record label merry and bright, it has racked up over 800,000 streams on YouTube in the three weeks between its release and the time of this article. And in 2007, Taylor Swift churned out a candy-cane country pop cover, failing to retain any of the original's devestation but hitting a respectable #28 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. There are few covers by gay or queer artists that have made waves within the public consciousness; Savage Garden's Darren Hayes chucked a version onto a Rosie O'Donnell Christmas album that fell into the bargain bin of 90s ephemera. And almost no existing versions of it capture the same beautiful, sublime sorrow.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a well-documented phenomena, though psychological studies like those conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention confirm that suicide rates in America actually drop in the winter and rise in the spring and summer. Yet for many, Christmas remains a difficult and -- global warming will excuse the pun -- hard to weather time of year for many people not only in America, but around the world. Christmas is a potent time of year for my family and I. A close family friend is fighting a losing battle to cancer, as my family deals with the worst financial hardships we've ever seen -- this will be the third year I show up Christmas day empty-handed. In 2015, I split up with my partner of three years, someone I had met on the internet and struggled to stay with through complications like distance and him being in the closet to his family. I survived a year of intense heartbreak and loneliness that will no doubt carry into 2016. It was a year where I found myself more and more turning to social dating and hookup apps like Grindr to ease the pain of feeling isolated and undesirable. A cursory google of the words "Grindr" and "loneliness" together yields handfuls of articles and psychological studies going as far back as 2010 that all seem to say the same thing: for all the good the digital age has done in bringing us closer together, gay and queer men feel further and further alienated from one another. The burgeoning reminder of capitalism's stranglehold on our general well-being and interpersonal relationships that Christmas brings, as well as the relived trauma of family fighting that, for many queer folks, rears its ugly head with the holiday season, crystallize in the prism of gay loneliness that is "Last Christmas."
And it clings to the public conciousness, gaining significant radio play in America every year. It is not just a reminder of the neon hedonism of the 80s -- it is also a snapshot of a world being ravaged by AIDS. By Christmas 1984, the USA had reported 7,699 AIDS cases and 3,665 AIDS deaths, with 762 cases reported in the UK. Nearly fifteen years after its release, in 1998, Wham! singer and former 80s heartthrob George Michael was arrested by an undercover police officer for cruising anonymously for gay sex in a public bathroom, outing himself as gay (though the singer claims he's had significant relationships with women) and solidified himself in the years after as a gay icon. Michael confirms he spent his Wham! years -- the height of the AIDS crisis -- in the closet, having a lover who died of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in 1993. But the world of 2015 represents significant progress made -- besides the advances made in the life expectancy of those living with HIV and AIDS, the HIV prevention pill Truvada has made great strides in providing gay and queer men with access to early prevention -- though it is by no means a perfect drug, and heavy debate has arisen within queer communities in regards to the impact Truvada has had on the sex practices of gay and queer men.
But is "Last Christmas" about AIDS? Is it George Michael, or some other tragedy-stricken gay man, watching his love life fall apart from the keyhole of the closet door? Or is it just a tale of adultery and heartbreak between two placeholders -- us, the audience and whosoever falls in the range of our heart's crosshairs? Only two Christmas songs have truly affected me as an adult -- this, and transgender singer Antony Hegarty's cover of John Lennon & Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," performed with Michael's comrade in gay 80s icon Boy George. Hegarty's aching, angelic warble against a backdrop of orchestral swells serves as my queer prayer every year for peace and goodwill -- just as every year, "Last Christmas" reaches its cold hands deep inside of me and touches something raw, something burning with remorse. Maybe, this Christmas, I'll leave my Grindr notifications unchecked. Maybe I'll text my ex-boyfriend, halfway across the country. Or maybe I'll just tell my family I love them, and hope that the next year will find me maybe just a little less lonely than the one before.