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6 September 2019

How Michael Bublé became the soundtrack to Christmas

By Lauren O'Neill

What is beige, sexy, and only comes out at Christmas? Though “the seductively crisp skin of a turkey crown” is not quite the answer I’m looking for, the correct one does share a similar level of festive ubiquity. Ten points, then, for anyone who named the Christmas crooner himself: Michael Bublé.

For close to a decade now, the yuletide stylings of Bublé – the Canadian-Italian swing singer – have sound-tracked countless Christmas dinners, parties and awkward mistletoe kisses at office knees-ups around the world. In the UK, you can scarcely turn on the TV or radio at this time of year without hearing Bublé’s smoother-than-an-Action-Man versions of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” or “Holly Jolly Christmas.” His rendition of the former, originally a Perry Como number, was, as of November 2019, Spotify’s fourth most-streamed Christmas song ever. His performances, reminiscent of the American holiday music of the Rat Pack, are so classic-feeling that it’s almost as though we have never been without them.

But how has Bublé created this mass festive appeal? And how, given the quickening lifecycle of contemporary trends and artists, has he maintained it for so long?

Since his eponymous debut in 2003, Bublé has been the king of easy listening, having steadily cultivated a global fan base predominately made up of mums who fancy him and dads who have worn out their Best of… Frank Sinatra CDs from overuse in the car.

Though Bublé writes original tunes, his popularity is based on a repertoire of non-threatening though well-executed jazz and swing covers (dramatic Bublé takes on “Feeling Good” and “Cry Me a River” have acquired especial prominence in the cultural imagination). His cheeky good looks, which can always be relied upon to trigger Auntie Lisa’s special, glazed-over smile whenever he appeared on X Factor or The Jonathan Ross Show, don’t hurt either. His 2009 album, Crazy Love, topped charts worldwide.   

This success laid the groundwork for the genesis of Christmas Bubléphilia in 2011. With an audience already primed for the classics, Bublé’s next move was to emulate his self-professed forebears – Como and Sinatra – and lend his caramel vocals to some of the most cherished songs of all: in October that year, he released a Christmas album. It was titled, simply, devastatingly: Christmas.

The record became a phenomenon. It is nine times Platinum certified in the UK (to go Platinum once, an album must be sold or streamed 300,000 times) and has spent a total of 77 weeks on the UK albums chart, including three at number one. It sold five million copies worldwide in its first month of release – by now, that sales figure is around 30 million. It follows, then, that big band arrangements of “Jingle Bells,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” have become the melodious ballads to Britain’s wintry scene, their comforting airs piped through the PA systems of crowded shopping centres from Inverness to Ipswich.

This impressive commercial performance is down to a couple of factors. Like much of Bublé’s output, Christmas is predominantly a series of cover songs that were already well-loved tracks. But more importantly, perhaps, is that Christmas treads a fine line between the reassuring predictability of the old and the half-excitement of the new. With the smoothness of his voice and amiability of his persona, Bublé’s throwback music mirrors the flat, depthless qualities that defined the post-political west before the millennium. In this sense, Bublé’s music swaddles listeners against the toils of contemporary life, while at the same time transporting us back to an (imagined) prelapsarian age before financial precarity, Trump, Brexit and accelerating climate catastrophe.

On Christmas, Bublé engineers this by replicating the lush, full-textured registers of the great American singers of the twentieth century (Martin, Darin, Crosby), who are the standard-bearers for a cosy, dulcet prospectus of Christmas music. He achieves it by using an old-school studio set-up. Describing his process for Christmas in 2011, Bublé said, “I sat with strings on my right side, horns on my left, drum, bass, piano, guitars. It made it easier to get into the mood.”

After the album’s initial success, Bublé was required to remain in “the mood” for about four years. Known for the mum-slaying sense of humour he displayed at concerts and during television appearances, he quickly became the go-to guy for TV executives looking for a hit Christmas special. Until 2015, he was the star of annual variety show holiday programmes in the US, the UK, and Canada – including NBC’s A Michael Bublé Christmas and ITV1’s Michael Buble: Home for the Holidays (both 2011), and CBC’s Michael Bublé’s Christmas in Hollywood (2015) – his ease on camera making him the complete contemporary crooner. For a time, he essentially became the face and voice of Christmas entertainment, which is probably why we still think of him as such.

Since then, Bublé has not shied away from the idea of his festive omnipresence (there’s a popular online meme which does the rounds in December, and reads “Christmas is coming, Michael Bublé emerges from his cave”). His eighth album Love, for example, came out in November 2018, ready for the Christmas gift rush. In late August 2016, Bublé released a women’s perfume – called, incredibly, “By Invitation.” If you’d already bought your mum all his albums, well then, you knew what to do come Christmas time. 

Even now, in 2019, Bublé is embracing his persona as The Christmas Guy – he recently released a new version of “White Christmas,” complete with family-friendly animated video. The song is classic Bublé, all brass and lively holiday cheer, and as a reimagining of a classic, it basically encapsulates the reasons for his festive staying power: it’s different but not too different, modern but not challenging, and upbeat in the sense that you might video a toddler dancing to it. So long as we want to be comforted and not confronted at Christmas, then, Bublé will reign supreme. 

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