As someone who only remembers "Baby It's Cold Outside" — a genuinely creepy song — because the characters Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert lip synced for their lives to it on a holiday episode of "A Different World," let me just say that John Legend has managed to do the implausible: Be a contemporary artist who records a Christmas classic you can actually remember hearing after the first (often mercy) listen.
Legend’s remake of the holiday carol featuring Kelly Clarkson is arguably the first memorable Christmas cover released by a contemporary artist in quite some time. Of course, part of that memorability is rooted in the (slight) backlash that caused him to rework lyrics of the original version released by Frank Loesser in 1944. Critics have long argued that Loesser's original lines — like “I really can’t stay (oh, baby, don’t hold out)” and “Say, what’s in this drink? (No cabs to be had out there)” — suggest coercion and raise issues of consent. As a result of such criticism, radio stations started banning the original version of the song last year.
In an interview on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," Legend said that, in the wake of the criticism, he “thought it would be fun" to rethink the piece and "looked at it with 2019 eyes,” writing the revisions with Natasha Rothwell from HBO's "Insecure." The new version, of course, sparked its own misguided backlash-to-the-backlash from the anti-political correctness crowd that missed a sincere effort by Legend to offer a version of a holiday classic that can fit into today’s sensibilities and actually sell copies.
After all, did you know that Brett Eldredge and Meghan Trainor released a version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” a few years ago? And before that, so did Michael Bublé? Based on their respective chart performances, perhaps maybe seven of you sort of remember, but those memories quickly faded. Legend’s version will likely prove more lasting because he at least made an effort to provide something new. In this case, "new" means "a Christmas song that doesn’t make you want to call a rape crisis hotline." (But if you do want to call one, RAINN offers a 24/7 online chat service in addition to their hotline at 1-800-656-4673.)
And really, those underlying principles — people want something new, and preferably something not-rapey, during the holiday season — should guide all other contemporary artists on how best to tackle holiday music, and in particular, the classics: If you can’t provide a necessary improvement to it, leave it alone.
There are already 10 billion versions of “The Christmas Song”; we don’t need 10 billion and one. We also don’t need any versions of “This Christmas” not performed by Donny Hathaway, thank you very much Chris Brown. (And while I am aging myself with these references, let me also note that very few folks are topping the Christmas album from The California Raisins or the "Claymation Christmas" holiday special of yore.)
Again, unless you’re updating some holiday song because the lyrical content contains sentiments that warrant the label of “problematic,” leave them be. We don’t need anymore remakes that have remakes going to their 20-year college reunions.
However, some artists genuinely love Christmas and/or may have contractual obligations that could be settled with an easy-to-record holiday project, and are going to make an effort no matter what. To that end, some more advice: Think less karaoke, more Mariah Carey.
By that, I mean, artists should record original Christmas music that mirrors the music we hear in their regular projects. Do you know why I will always listen to Gwen Stefani’s first solo album and not her holiday album? Because I highly doubt Stefani really wants to sing “Jingle Bells” and while I’m happy for her finding love, that song she did with Blake Shelton is no kind of holiday bop either.
A better example of how to do holiday music is Ariana Grande’s Christmas EP, "Christmas & Chill," a masterpiece that I listen to year round. Grande — who consistently honors the spirit of Mariah Carey — realized that there was an audience for Christmas music to which you can body roll. Enter holiday gems like “Wit It This Christmas” and “December,” which sit at the intersection of sex and Santa (although, in this instance, consent is implied and agencies are respected, so we can bop and sway in peace). Thots like me celebrate the holidays, too, which is how Grande filled a void and managed to release a holiday project that didn’t nauseate me.
Similarly, while I will admit I was pleasantly surprised by Khia's (of “My Neck, My Back” fame) cover of “Santa Baby,” the uptempo remix is totally original and is perfect for Christmas night at the club after you escape your family. (A lot of millennials don’t have families of their own yet because of massive student loan debt, fear of climate change and other pitfalls related to a generation severely screwed over. We try to twerk through it.)
And yes, there are examples to follow that don’t require your hips or thigh muscles. I may not like Kanye West much these days politically, but “Christmas In Harlem” featuring Cyhi the Prynce and R&B singer Teyana Taylor is a great example of what a great modern holiday hip hop offering can be. It’s soul samples, great lyrics and sublime vocals — everything I used to enjoy about a Kanye West song, but festive for the occasion.
So for the love of Baby Jesus, singers, rappers, and whatever it is the rest of the acts of today do, when you hit the booth to record a holiday track, make it original and make it sound like music you actually like creating. If you can't, leave the studio immediately and do the only right thing: Stream “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Because as always (but most especially this time of year), it’s often best to just let go and let Mariah hit that high note for you.