“Last Christmas”—a pop song of 1980s heartbreak—never sounded as sad as it did today, after news broke that its singer and composer, George Michael, died at his home on Christmas Day.
Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, the duo that made up Wham!, released the song in 1984. It rose to number two on the UK charts, only outdone by the star-studded Christmas benefit song, also featuring Michael, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid. (Royalties for both songs were given to famine relief in Ethiopia.) It has since entered the cannon of loved and hated pop carols that dominate the airwaves each December.
But the song isn’t really a Christmas song at all. Rather, its a tale of heartbreak about a failed relationship. The music video, viewed 221 million times on YouTube, is a montage of slow-motion pans and longing looks, filmed at an empty Switzerland ski resort.
Rejecting the grungier aesthetic of the era, director Andy Morahan created a dreamy aesthetic, mixing wholesome snow fights and gauzy dinner parties, overlaid with a sentimental storyline of loss and love: Michael and Ridgeley vie for the affections of the same girl over a weekend gathering of friends. In a flashback, Michael is shown giving the object of his affection a brooch the previous Christmas—only to see her return with Ridgeley the next year, wearing the same brooch.
The song never cracked number one in US or UK, but Wham!’s anthem has been played, covered, and worshiped around the world over three decades, continually reappearing on charts.
More than two million copies have been sold in the UK and US, and another 600,000 in Japan. “Last Christmas” has reportedly been covered by almost 500 artists, including Coldplay, Kim Wilde, Jimmy Eat World, Kylie Minogue, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Taylor Swift (whose own version cracked the top 40 on US country charts in 2007). In 2013, it was Spotify’s most streamed song in the UK on Christmas Day and it was third in Australia this year.
Not everyone regards “Last Christmas” as a masterpiece. Critics have likened listening to the”wallowing mess of a song” to allowing “fairly unpleasant-tasting syrup cover you drip by drip down the top of your head.” And indeed, the song does pluck at the same angsty heart strings that a million other chart-toppers have twanged.
But Michael was never sloppy. His peerless writing, producing, and performing of crisp, perfectly composed pop songs earned him more than 100 million record sales and two Grammy awards—and it can still be heard today in “Last Christmas.”