This is not meant to be a “defense,” per se, of Paul McCartney’s 1979 hit single and holiday playlist staple “Wonderful Christmastime.” If the sound of that sproingy synthesizer lead fills you with dread, and the loose, almost sloppy vocals offend thine ear, I don’t think anything I could write here would ever change your mind. I mean, I love it. I didn’t grow up with very strong Christmas traditions in my house, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t relish “Wonderful Christmastime” as counterprogramming to the normal sorts of holiday songs you hear in stores every year. But I completely understand that this song is a massive, massive turnoff for many people, and I’m not going to even try to convince you that you’re wrong.
But I do think that, even if you hate this song, you ought to concede that it is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for McCartney’s next-level, singular musical genius.
Before we talk about what this song is, let’s talk about what it is not.
It’s not lazy, as many foes of the song allege. A lazy McCartney could have cranked out a Christmas song to match your expectations in any number of ways. He could have written an endearingly schmaltzy description of tinsel and stockings and nutmeg and the magic of our children’s faces when they open their gifts, and he could have slapped a forty-piece orchestra and a choir on the back of it and called it a day. He could have sat at his piano and written a tender ballad about how he misses his girl, and how the holiday lights don’t really mean anything without her there, and baby won’t you come home? He could have written one of those ’50s-throwback rock ‘n’ rollers about Santa Claus, that cool X-mas cat in the red coat and hat. He could have written a bouncy children’s novelty song, maybe Cameron the Christmas Chameleon or something, turning all the colors of the presents under the tree. McCartney could have even turned out a sort of vaguely non-denominational hymn about angels and the majesty and the solemnity of the season.
When McCartney decided, “Right, time for a Christmas single,” he could have very easily picked one of the options above. And don’t get me wrong, it could have been a great song! The man knows his way around a pastiche, so at the very least, he could have written something competent, something inoffensive, something that “sounds like Christmas.”
But he didn’t. Paul McCartney, the insane millionaire genius, put a delay effect on a synthesizer to produce a sound that would have been more at home on a prog-rock or disco record. Was it a challenge to himself? “How can I take a sound so unlike what we associate with Christmas and use it to build a song that connects with people anyway?” Or did he stumble across that effect by accident—maybe it was even a preset, I don’t know enough about vintage synths to say—and suddenly whatever part of his brain assembled the beginnings of the immortal classic “Yesterday” while still asleep recognized a potential nobody else could have?
There is a popular urban legend that a group of scientists once determined a bumblebee’s wings, according to principles of aerodynamics, should not be able to support the bumblebee’s weight; yet the bumblebee, which doesn’t care about what scientists think, flies anyway. This is, of course, utter horseshit. At best, it’s an amusing thought originating from an honest misunderstanding; at worst, it’s the sort of thing people with an ax to grind against science use to shut down reasonable and rational discourse.
But it is a handy metaphor for looking at Paul McCartney’s songwriting.
McCartney, funnily enough for one of the most popular entertainers who ever lived, is a divisive figure. Some of the criticism against him is earned, but a lot of it is a kind of received wisdom stemming from the mythic shadow that the Beatles throw over 20th century popular culture. The received wisdom—which, to be fair, has undergone significant re-examination by critics over the past 15 years or so—is that John Lennon was the artist, the poet, the visionary, the experimenter, the bad boy who doesn’t give a shit what you or anyone else think of him. McCartney, in this worldview, is the sunny one, the soft one, the one who gets along with the kiddies and the grannies, the straightforward, overly eager-to-please showman.
Yet, despite his reputation for being safe and uninspired, McCartney has often leveraged the trust that comes with putting his name or the Beatles’ name on a record to sell listeners on musical experiments. The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” is an unlikely number-one single; his own “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” with its Frankenstein structure and comedy voices, is perhaps even less so. But why then, might a typical Paul McCartney album contain some bizarre, adventurous tracks right next to reliable but less imaginative “Maybe I’m Amazed”-style crowdpleasers and, yes, his fair share of dull, by-the-numbers plodders?
Is it possible that Paul McCartney has trouble telling the difference?
McCartney, like the rest of the Beatles, was largely self-taught as a musician and songwriter, without a background in music theory. His work seems largely instinctual—again, he wrote one of the most celebrated songs of the 20th century essentially in his fucking sleep. I see McCartney as a composer of some primal but undisciplined brilliance; a conduit, if you will, that music just seems to flow from as naturally as water through a river. By his early twenties, he had become a rich and famous and almost incalculably adored pop star; by his late twenties, he had been accepted as a great artist and a voice of his generation. It should come as no surprise that this success has produced a songwriter and musician who can afford to put great faith and trust in his own abilities. As a result, there are few people who can tell McCartney that you can’t do this or you can’t do that on a pop song. You can probably think of a bunch of songs where you wish someone had taken him aside, told him it’s crap, and encouraged him to scrap it; you can probably also think of a bunch of songs that most producers would have thought to be too unusual to be commercial—and they were wrong. Opinion is pretty split on which of these buckets “Wonderful Christmastime” actually belongs in.
But the song did connect. And what’s more, it endures. You can say, “Oh, it’s just because it’s got a Beatle’s name on it,” but “Mull of Kintyre” wasn’t a big hit in the US despite its phenomenal success in the UK, Europe, and Australia. And there’s plenty more shit from the ‘70s and ‘80s that we’ve pretty well forgotten today. But “Wonderful Christmastime” doesn’t go away. Something about it hits at least a significant subset of listeners just right—whether despite the song’s oddities or, indeed, because of them. It shouldn’t work, but it does, like the mythical bumblebee’s wings. Paul McCartney does not give listeners what they already want; he takes something that’s just occurred to him—which might be something strange and experimental, but which might also be straightforward and unchallenging—and sets about recording it in a way so that listeners will want it.
If that is not some sort of expression of genius, I don’t know what is.
POSTSCRIPT: This is likely the only music article I’ll write here, because I realized my freshman year in college (2002-2003) that I was not cut out for responsible criticism. What’s more besides, I don’t have the kind of musical theory knowledge to really dig into what I like. If you do want a closer analysis of “Wonderful Christmastime” and how it works from a musical standpoint, however, I recommend you read this post by the very talented Andrew Hickey.