In the spring of 1984, Neil Tennant – then in his pre–Pet Shop Boys guise as a music journalist – popped down to Miami to see what the boys in Wham! were up to. During breaks from a music video shoot in a sunlight-dappled hotel room (it would turn out to be the clip for the mega-successful “Careless Whisper”), Tennant caught up with George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, who were at work on following up their 1983 album Fantastic with new material on a new label.
During a chat with the pair, Ridgeley let slip that their Christmas single had already been written (Michael had written it in February, according to other interviews), and that it “sends a tingle up [his] spine.” A few months later, the song – the pillowy, longing “Last Christmas” – came out, and the duo had high hopes for it. “As an artist, you want to reach as many people as possible. My aim,” Michael told Smash Hits a few months later, “is for our Christmas single – it’s called ‘Last Christmas’ – to sell a million and a half.”
Michael’s sales expectations have since been exceeded – “Last Christmas” has, as of this year, sold 1.8 million copies in his home nation and more than 750,000 copies in the States. But the impact the song has had goes far beyond its scans. “Last Christmas” has become one of the biggest holiday songs spawned in the post-MTV era, second only to Mariah Carey’s Phil Spector throwback “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
Even after years of heavy play, the song still sounds fresh. Similar to seasonal classics like Darlene Love’s jubilantly heartbroken “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” it focuses on the sadder emotions that the holiday can dredge up – in this case, a breakup that happened just as the Christmas season was hitting its stride. The plush keyboards bring to mind blankets of snow; the buried jingle bells sound icy in the context of a departed lover. And Michael’s vocal performance, from his resigned “well, it’s been a year – it doesn’t surprise me” on the opening verse to the wailing open notes he lets loose as the song reaches its climax, showcases the serious soul chops he was honing during Wham!’s Stateside breaking period.
Because of the way it bridges holiday-season sentimentality with all-year heartbreak, it’s become a popular holiday cover for artists of all stripes – emo standard-bearers Jimmy Eat World, ringtone mascot Crazy Frog, agitated Brit-poppers Manic Street Preachers, pre-global domination Taylor Swift. Some have taken liberties with the original structure in order to satisfy their own artistic impulses: Carly Rae Jepsen’s version, which came out last year, foregrounds the song’s bridge for maximum heartbreak; Ariana Grande’s 2013 cover added a couple of irritated asides (“Boy, you blew it/How could you do it?”); mopesters the xx swapped in chilly, sparse synths and trembling guitars and foregrounded the deeply felt vocals of Romy Madley Croft.
When “Last Christmas” came out in 1984, it lost that year’s frenzied race for the U.K. charts’ Christmas Number One to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the all-star charity single by Band Aid. (Michael appeared on that track, singing the opening lines of its second verse.) But the song’s message of seasonal romantic woe has proven surprisingly durable. On Billboard‘s current Holiday 100, compiled before Michael’s death at 53 was announced on Christmas Day, the Wham! track sits at Number 11, in between Gene Autry’s sweetly jingling “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s progged-out “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24).” Billboard still has at least one more holiday chart up its sleeve; given that Michael’s Spotify streams have spiked in the wake of his passing, it would stand to reason that “Last Christmas” will leap at least a few spots.
In the 1984 Smash Hits interview where Michael set his sales-goal sights, he also outlined his criteria for pop immortality: “A great pop song has something about it that will appeal to millions of people. There are different ways of doing that. You can do it in a crass way like [the pineapple-happy single by the British pop band Black Lace] ‘Agadoo’. Or in an uplifting way like the way we do it in.” While the wistful “Last Christmas” might take a circuitous route to being “uplifting,” there’s no doubt it meets Michael’s stringent criteria for pop greatness.