SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Why Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” Is Finally No. 1

A 78-year-old has America’s biggest song. Here’s how she pulled it off.

This installment of “Why Is This Song No. 1?” is momentous for at least a couple of reasons. First, as of this month, this Slate series is 10 years old. We launched it in December 2013 with an entry on the Eminem–Rihanna duet “The Monster” (not an auspicious kickoff song—it’s neither artist’s best chart-topper—but the hits got better from there). Second, the best gift I could have received for my 10-year Slate column anniversary is a Hot 100 topper that is musically superb, sets a historic chart record, defies normal pop logic, reveals something magical about how the charts work … and that I somehow, amazingly, predicted would reach No. 1. Merry Christmas, Brenda Lee—and congratulations to both of us.

“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” a 1958 recording that never cracked the Top 10 in its day, is now, 65 years later, the No. 1 song in America. In December 2021, I did a whole episode of my Slate podcast Hit Parade about the performers behind holiday chestnuts, an episode that was themed around the possibility that Brenda Lee might pull this off. And now, even earlier than I forecast, it’s happened. As with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which belatedly reached No. 1 four years ago, a mix of very 21st-century factors—streaming, video, playlisting—brought about Lee’s chart feat.

In the process, Lee sets all sorts of new Hot 100 milestones. For starters, taking six and a half decades to reach No. 1 makes “Rockin’ ” the slowest-climbing chart-topper ever, surpassing the mere quarter-century it took Carey’s 1994 recording to reach the top. More impressive, Brenda Lee, 78 and still rockin’, becomes the oldest living person to score a No. 1 song in America, surpassing in one fell swoop previous female record-holder Cher, who rang the bell with “Believe” in 1999 at age 52, and the prior all-genders record-holder Louis Armstrong, who was 62 when his take on “Hello, Dolly” hit No. 1 in 1964. This is also not Lee’s first No. 1 song—in late 1960, as a teen idol, she topped the chart with “I Want to Be Wanted.” And therein lies another record: The 63 years between “Wanted” and “Rockin’ ” give Lee the longest gap between career chart-toppers, again beating (more than doubling) Cher, who went 25 years between “Dark Lady” and “Believe.”

Here’s the craziest footnote of all: Lee is the Hot 100’s first-ever septuagenarian chart-topper, but with a song she recorded at age 13. I don’t know what you call that—it’s so unprecedented, it’s not really a benchmark we chart nerds track—but let’s agree to call this the Hot 100’s biggest artist timewarp: some kind of reverse–Marty McFly feat of chart science. (You know that new sound you’ve been looking for? Well, listen to this!!) Though Lee is a certified legend—one of only two woman inducted into both the Rock & Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame—she is not blasé about this week’s good news. If I may borrow a little Yiddish for Hanukkah, I dare you not to get a little verklempt when watching this low-tech video of an overwhelmed, humbled Lee finding out she’s top of the pops.

A bit about our latest Hot 100 commander: Brenda Mae Tarpley, born into deep poverty in Atlanta in 1944, began singing professionally as young as 5 and appearing on television at 10. Between those two milestones, her father died when Brenda was 8, making her the family’s breadwinner. By age 11, she had adopted the stage name Brenda Lee and was signed to Decca Records. Lee never grew taller than 4-foot-9—so when, at age 12, she recorded the cracking rockabilly song “Dynamite,” the industry nicknamed Brenda “Little Miss Dynamite.” Even at that tender age, Lee was a spitfire. Her singles, like the telephone-number song “Bigelow 6-200,” had remarkable grit. At a time when Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson was revolutionizing the role of women in both rock ’n’ roll and country, Lee was doing much the same, nearly a decade younger. “One Step at a Time” garnered airplay on both Top 40 and country radio in 1957.

Lee finally had her major breakthrough at the end of 1959 with “Sweet Nothin’s,” a remarkably self-assured single that made both the Hot 100 (No. 4) and even the R&B chart (No. 12). And it opened very memorably, with Lee cooing, “UH-HUH, honey …” (If that opening sounds familiar to 21st-century ears, that’s because Kanye West sampled it on “Bound 2,” his schmoopy 2013 ode to future wife Kim Kardashian.) By the start of the ’60s, Brenda Lee was established as a teen idol, at a time when most teen idols were boys. She parlayed that image into her first chart-topping hit, the unrequited-love weeper “I’m Sorry.” Produced by the legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley, pioneer of the “countrypolitan” sound made famous by Patsy Cline, “I’m Sorry” topped the Hot 100 in July 1960. Three months later, Brenda Lee had her second No. 1, an adaptation of the Italian song “Per Tutta la Vita” that was anglicized as “I Want to Be Wanted.”

Striking while the iron was hot, Decca chose late 1960 to rerelease a single Lee had recorded back when she was 13 and that had flopped during the holiday seasons of both 1958 and 1959. Now that Lee was famous, they figured they’d have better luck. It was not only produced by Owen Bradley, it was written by Johnny Marks, the same man who’d penned “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Marks wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” specifically for Lee, giving it teen-idol energy—the song opens with lyrics about a “Christmas party hop”—and a rockabilly sound that was both country-friendly and pop-conversant. As usual, Lee’s sassy voice was wise beyond her years. Rereleased in November 1960, “Rockin’ ” finally cracked the Top 40, peaking at No. 14 in a brief four-week chart run.

Between 1960 and ’63, Brenda Lee strung together a near-unbroken streak of a dozen Top 10 singles that blended the ascendant modes of girl-group, countrypolitan, and teen pop, all before her 20th birthday—classics like “Fool #1,” “You Can Depend on Me,” and “Break It to Me Gently.” This run made Lee a bigger chart titan than we remember today. According to chart historian Joel Whitburn, the top five pop acts of the 1960s, based on Hot 100 performance, were the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Brenda Lee, and the Supremes. After Lee scored her final (new) Top 40 pop hit in 1967 with “Ride Ride Ride,” she pivoted seamlessly to country music, scoring hits like “Nobody Wins” (No. 5 country, 1973) and “Big Four Poster Bed” (No. 4 country, 1974). She collaborated with the Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, and in 1984, on her last major hit, with country legend George Jones.

So: Brenda Lee was an affirmed legend before age 60, before digital music, and before streaming rebooted the charts, making it possible for holiday hits to go much higher on the Hot 100 than they ever had before. It’s only in the 21st century—and really, only the last five to 10 years—that holiday songs have achieved chart peaks commensurate with their cultural stature.

To explain how this happened, I need to briefly recap the chart arcana I explained when Mariah Carey scored her belated ho-ho-holiday topper in 2019. Before the digital era, Christmas music was a bad fit for the charts. These songs are played very intensively for only four to six weeks per year. That window wasn’t long enough for the old physical-goods system to reflect just how popular seasonal hits are. Again, at its original peak, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” only charted four weeks, peaking at No. 14. That was pretty typical for a holiday song in those days; at the height of the Four Seasons’ fame in 1962, they issued a falsetto-laden cover of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” and it peaked at a modest No. 23 on the Hot 100, in a three-week chart run. Right through the end of the 20th century, holiday music charted poorly. In 1984–85, Band-Aid’s charity megasingle “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” only reached No. 13 in America, and Wham’s now-cherished “Last Christmas” didn’t chart at all.

In the case of Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” several changes in Billboard methodology made its coronation possible: the advent of the digital download in the mid-’00s, which made any song purchasable and hence fair game for the charts; the elimination, in the early ’10s, of Billboard rules preventing “catalog” or “gold” music—old hits—from returning to the charts (thus, whether it’s “Dreams,” “Running Up That Hill,” or “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” if an old song amasses big enough numbers, it can chart again); and, most important, the launch of streaming music. It turns out that counting every time somebody plays a song—not just the moment somebody purchases a song, or the estimated radio audience for a song—gives a whole new sense of a hit’s magnitude. Streaming finally gave Billboard the fine-tuned metrics, at scale, it needed to track holiday songs properly. As more Americans switched from buying to streaming their music—and playing themed Spotify playlists, which juice the stats for perennial favorites—Christmas songs not only did better on the charts; for one month per year, they utterly dominated. Every December since the late ’10s, the Hot 100 has become swamped with Christmas music, shoving current hits by Taylor Swift, Drake, and the Weeknd temporarily out of the way to make room for Bobby Helms, Burl Ives, Andy Williams, Brenda Lee, Wham, and Mariah Carey.

For the past four holiday seasons, Carey’s chestnut has returned to No. 1, tallying a total of 12 weeks on top, and each year, Lee’s evergreen “Rockin’ ” has risen to No. 2, hitting a ceiling behind Carey. Getting past Mariah, the self-dubbed Queen of Christmas, seemed like an impossible task. Lee’s hit would inch ever closer to Carey’s, only to fall short as the calendar flipped past New Year’s—all the holiday hits would tumble off the Hot 100 in January, and the whole Sisyphean cycle would begin again 11 months later. (I began to picture Brenda Lee as the Tom Cruise character in Edge of Tomorrow.)

But as the 2022 holiday season was drawing to a close, the streams for Lee’s “Rockin’ ” edged out Carey’s “Christmas” for just one week, and Mariah remained atop the Hot 100 overall thanks only to her slightly stronger radio airplay and download sales. Lee’s management and label got the message: Carey was vulnerable, and No. 1 was possible. This season, in honor of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’s” 65th anniversary (a flimsy but fair pretext), Team Brenda pulled out all the stops, booking her on TV, shooting a brand-new music video, even getting her on TikTok. The video, especially, is a hoot: In a very modest home festooned with a red curtain and a perfectly ordinary tree, the 78-year-old Lee greets and cooks a holiday feast with guests (country-music eminences Tanya Tucker and Trisha Yearwood) while lip-syncing her own teenage vocals. It’s like Peter Jackson’s misbegotten video with the reanimated Beatles, only not creepy and with all the participants still alive.

Speaking of the Beatles, allow me to make an analogy to the Fab Four (something I have done way too many times in this column’s history), because I think it gets at a more basic question: Why, out of all the holiday hits swamping the charts each year, does Brenda Lee’s bop come out at or near the top? Why this Christmas song? I think it has something to do with how digital music reveals our fondest song preferences, and the role songs fill in our lives.

Back in 2010, after years of negotiations between Apple’s Steve Jobs and the estates of the Fab Four, the Beatles’ catalog of songs was finally released on the iTunes Music Store, with all their songs downloadable for a buck. Apple trumpeted the arrival like an event, but chart-watchers like me were also hotly curious: What would happen when you allowed the public to download any Beatles song, untethered from albums or from physical goods? Which Lennon–McCartney classics would dominate at iTunes: No. 1s like “She Loves You,” “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be”? Turns out, it was none of those. When the first week of Beatles download data came in at Billboard, the top seller was a song that not only never hit No. 1, it had never even been released as a single—and it was a George Harrison song: “Here Comes the Sun.” At the time, I explained away this result as one of market availability. As a nonsingle in 1969, “Sun” was hard to buy on its own—you had to either buy the Abbey Road LP or the 1973 “blue” compilation. It wasn’t a hit, so it didn’t make most Beatles greatest-hits collections, including the bestselling 1 CD—maybe casual Beatles fans were just filling that gap in their collections? But my 2010 theory was wrong: As the years have gone on, the public’s love for “Sun” has only deepened. When Spotify came to America in 2011, “Sun” established itself as the Beatles’ top stream. It still holds that distinction a dozen years later, far and away—“Here Comes the Sun” is the only Beatles song to surpass a billion streams on Spotify.

I take away a couple of lessons from the “Sun” revelation. First, when it comes to the charts, metrics matter. We had no idea how beloved George Harrison’s Abbey Road deep cut was, because the charts and the marketplace didn’t provide a yardstick. On a truly even playing field—one made possible by digital technology, where all songs are equally consumable—the market forms a consensus. Second, songs are both inspiring and functional. “Here Comes the Sun” makes sense as a Fab Four favorite, because it soundtracks life passages and times of change. You can picture all of the occasions a listener might find “Sun” hopeful, heartening, and hymnlike.

Similarly, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” finally achieved its destiny because of better metrics, and because it’s a truly versatile holiday song. The old charts system couldn’t capture the depth of the public’s love for any holiday hit. But once digital music flattened the competitive field, “Rockin’ ” flattened the holiday competition (everything except Mariah Carey’s own juggernaut, and the two now appear to be neck-and-neck). I’d even go so far as to say digital music helped make “Rockin’ ” what it became. Playing music is now so frictionless—and zapping the songs we don’t like so easy—we are all contributing to a live holiday music test every December: at our tree-trimmings, office parties, shopping trips. Lee’s hit would have lost out to Bobby Helms, Andy Williams, or Wham by now if it wasn’t so alluring. And that’s where function comes in: “Rockin’ ” is midtempo, family-friendly but sophisticated, twangy but soulful, danceable but not too heavy, expertly sung but easy to sing along with, catchy and multigenerational. It may not be a song for all seasons—it would sound odd in July—but it’s worthy of all audiences.

This holiday season is turning out to be a good one for former also-rans of the Christmas canon. Over in the United Kingdom, chart-watchers are betting that the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s classic “Fairytale of New York”—which only reached No. 2 in the 1987 edition of the annual U.K. Christmas No. 1 chart sweepstakes—might finally take the crown in the wake of Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan’s death. It would be a fitting parallel with what Brenda Lee just pulled off in America. I’ll confess, I have no idea if this will be “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’s” last week on top—will it now repeat at No. 1 year after year, the way “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has? Mariah Carey is a tough competitor, and I expect her Lamb army to fight back against any permanent merry-season usurpation. Also, given the way the Christmas canon evolves, albeit very slowly, I can foresee songs like “Last Christmas” or, years from now, Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me,” taking a turn at the top of the heap. However these hits fare, they will take their cues from Little Miss Dynamite, who showed Christmas competitors the new old-fashioned way.