29 November 2001

It's The Most Difficult Time For My Ears

It's not even December yet and I'm already sick of Christmas music. That's no real surprise -- Thanksgiving fell comparatively early this year, and once it's out of the way, American stores, radio stations, and other organizations have traditionally felt completely free to bombard people with all-out Christmas promotion.

Don't get me wrong -- I like Christmas. I put up the tree every year, I know the words to all the traditional carols and plenty that aren't, and spend much of the autumn thinking of the perfect gifts to get people. It's just that the Christmas music played on radio stations, in stores, and on most holiday albums, completely sucks.

With a very few exceptions, holiday music (though all one ever hears is songs about Christmas or general winter pastimes) is stuck in a swamp of sentimentality. Songs with religious lyrics are arranged and recorded so as to reduce the birth of humanity's savior to the level of a mass-produced figurine of a sad-eyed puppy. How about letting your god have at least human dignity? Songs about winter pastimes play on nostalgia for our great-grandparents' lives -- how many people alive today have ever seen, much less ridden in, a one-horse open sleigh? Most of them seem particularly ridiculous to me because I've lived in the South all my life, and in Florida since 1986. "White Christmas," to me, brings back, not snowy landscapes, but the memories of a middle-school chorus teacher trying to eradicate the accents of South Carolina seventh-graders, so we'd sing "white" instead of "whaat."

Even songs that are neither about Jesus nor northern winters are schmaltz through and through. The same carol that is beautiful and touching sung a cappella becomes unlistenable after being remade according to the bland pop, smooth jazz, or fake soul formulas. The work environment is the worst for this. You might be stuck for an entire month listening to the same four tapes eight hours a day (this happened in a fabric store where I used to work), or listening to a radio station playing nothing but holiday songs -- the effect is pretty much the same. Even if you liked the music to begin with, the overexposure is much greater than even the most repetitive Top 40 station. It usually made me want to go home and crank Led Zeppelin, or Nirvana, or anything completely unlike the cutesiness I'd been forcibly exposed to. ( Bob Rivers' "Twisted Christmas" albums were also great, as they provided parody lyrics to sing under one's breath when the original songs were played.) If Ebenezer Scrooge said "Bah, humbug!" to a Victorian Christmas, a modern U.S. one would set him on edge enough to machine-gun the first ghost to enter his bedroom.

Christmas music can be good. Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite, the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for A Charlie Brown Christmas, those were meant to help but not overshadow stories told in dance or animation, so they don't seem to take on the hamminess of even other instrumental Christmas songs. One of the few recordings I never seem to tire of in December is John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." It's performed in a straightforward manner, not coated with sugary-sweet strings, and doesn't try to evoke nostalgia in its words. I'm surprised anyone still plays it. Perhaps the choir vocals at the end fool the radio programmers. The majority of rock and other recent styles' artists who've tried to make Christmas music that sounds like their usual musical style don't seem to reach classic status, which is a crying shame.

An interesting example of this is the Bob Rivers Twisted Christmas version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" -- which is sung to the tune of and exactly in imitation of the performance of the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." Once you get over the shock and laughter at how well the lyrics fit the new tune, you realize it sounds good. The bassline and organ fit the expectancy of the deserted town at night as well as they did the story of a young person gone bad. Someone who didn't know the original carol wouldn't find anything humorous about Rivers' version. If more Christmas music were treated like the songs of the rest of the year by good artists, instead of sugar-coated, it would be a lot easier to live in the U.S. during December.

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