Tough listening to “Last Christmas” this season, huh? Every time I heard the Wham! classic, I couldn’t help but recall the terrible fact that George Michael passed away on December 25, 2016. So, last Christmas– well, Christmas 2016– was indeed George’s last Christmas.
A Closer Look At ‘Last Christmas’ By Wham!
Perhaps the one-year anniversary of George Michael’s death was the reason why I looked a little more deeply into the lyrics “Last Christmas” this season. Now, you might be thinking, “Just how deeply can you look at this song? Is there really THAT much to it?” And that’s where you’re wrong. Indeed, like a glass of eggnog that has been secretly spiked, this song has an unexpected kick to it.
But before I get to the hard-core analysis, I just want to point out something curious I noticed about the song’s core metaphor. If you recall, the chorus says, “Last Christmas I gave you my heart/ But the very next day you gave it away.” Now, I get how you can figuratively give your heart to someone. (I’m thinking Lloyd Dobler’s “I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen” lament from Say Anything… )
But can that someone to whom you gave your heart proceed to “give away” that same heart? I mean, that person can give your heart BACK to you. Or that person can maybe THROW your heart away. But GIVE it away? To whom? And what are the implications of this? Are you now obligated to date this other person?
Things get a little stickier in a later verse, when the narrator says “I wrapped it up and sent it/ with a note saying ‘I love you.’” What, exactly, is the antecedent of “it”? The only noun that makes any sense is “heart,” from the chorus. So, in other words, he didn’t just “give” his heart to his beloved; he wrapped it up, put a note on it, and sent it in the mail. I know it’s a metaphor, but… man, he’s venturing into gruesome figurative territory. Like “Evil Queen asking for Snow White’s heart to prove the huntsman killed her” levels of gruesome.
But I digress. What I really would like to do is look at what’s going inside the conflicted head of the song’s narrator. Truly, in “Last Christmas,” George Michael skillfully crafted a disturbing portrait of a pained, slightly masochistic jilted lover. Let’s take a look, starting with the Chorus.
(Incidentally, in the following discussion, I am going gender neutral as far as the narrator’s former and current lover. Although George Michael died an openly gay man, at this point in his career, he was still writing songs about women. So I’m going the “him/ her” route…)
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special
This nicely sets up the story of the song: on the previous Christmas, our narrator was in love with someone, but this person dumped him on December 26th. So, now a year has passed, and our narrator is in love with someone new. So far, so good. (Incidentally, how COLD can you be to dump someone the DAY AFTER Christmas? I mean, wait until, like, December 28th– just enough time after Christmas so the holidays aren’t ruined, but enough time to get over it before New Year’s Eve.)
Now onto the verses, where things get a little more complicated…
Once bitten and twice shy
I keep my distance
But you still catch my eye
Tell me, baby
Do you recognize me?
Well, it’s been a year
It doesn’t surprise me
Thickens, the plot does The verse begins with our hapless narrator, fearing he’ll get hurt again, wanting to keep his distance from his ex. But then he immediately concedes he is still drawn to him/ her (“You still catch my eye…”), while acknowledging he would not be at all shocked if his ex did not “recognize” him. (Not recognize you? How long were the two of you a couple?)
So, Mr. Hopeless Romantic Narrator, let me get this straight: your ex-lover not only dumped you the day AFTER Christmas but also may not even RECOGNIZE you if he/ she saw you on the street– and you still have feelings for this person? What’s wrong you? Move on. Cut your losses. Why heap heartache on yourself?
The narrator’s masochism only gets more pronounced in the next verse…
(Merry Christmas!) I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying, “I love you, ” I meant it
Now, I know what a fool I’ve been
But if you kissed me now
I know you’d fool me again
The narrator is so conflicted: he knows he was a fool for loving someone who was so callous with his heart… but he also knows that if he/ she would take him back, he’d fall back into his old habits. To wit, I say… Get some self-esteem! Why are you still so available for this person?
And what about this “someone special” the narrator talked about in the chorus, the one he planned to give his heart to this Christmas? Consider the next series of lyrics…
A crowded room, friends with tired eyes
I’m hiding from you, and your soul of ice
My God, I thought you were someone to rely on
Me? I guess I was a shoulder to cry on
A face on a lover with a fire in his heart
A man undercover but you tore me apart
Now, I’ve found a real love you’ll never fool me again
These lyrics have some curious elements (Why do the friends have “tired eyes”? Why was the narrator “undercover”?), but basically, it seems the narrator is at a social gathering that his ex is also attending. And after thinking about what initially brought them together (he was just a “shoulder to cry on”), he ultimately tells himself that’s all in the past and that he’s found a “real love” in someone else.
I don’t buy it. Not for a Whammo-second.
Just go back over the lyrics: the “Now I’ve found a real love” line is the ONLY other time, other than the chorus, that he even mentions this new person. The majority of the song is about the EX-lover; the “you” of the song, after all, is not his new mate, but the ex with the “soul of ice.” Just how “real” can this “real love” be– just how “special” can this “someone special” be– when you’re so obviously hung up on your old flame?
George Michael was clearly a man of intense feeling. As one of my students pointed out, the name of his group ended in an exclamation point. Talk about intense! But I think his lingering passion for his former flame– despite his claims to the contrary– was going to be his undoing.
So, if I were the narrator’s buddy (maybe one of the friends with the “tired eyes”), I’d advise him NOT to give his heart away this Christmas– even if he thinks he’s giving it to someone “special.” Why does he constantly need to find validation in someone else? Instead, I’d advise him to spend this Christmas with someone truly “special”– namely himself.