Friday, December 31, 2010

The Essential Weirdness of Christmas Music

After some time in the employ of some of America's finest retail clothing establishments, I went off Christmas music. I didn't stop liking it for what it was, but spending 240 hours with it blaring in the background, in the six-week period around Christmas, eliminated my ability to take much joy in it for a few years.

I imagine I otherwise might have gone to a store to buy CDs of Christmas songs, but over-saturation drove the impulse from me, for a couple of seasons. Besides, like any good family member, I spent most Christmases with family. Having my own copy of James Galway flautin' the bejesus out of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was unnecessary.

So this year, as host of Christmas festivities, I had nowhere to turn when it came to listening to music I had long since come to enjoy again. I turned on the cable box and cued up the "SOUNDS OF THE SEASONS" channel. If you've purchased a digital cable package anywhere in America in the last decade, you know exactly what kind of channel I'm talking about. You also know exactly why the Christmas music I listened to might be plainly weird.

Over the years, I've noticed a few patterns with these channels. Whoever creates their playlists buys on the cheap and tends to value new expensive music over older expensive music. They'll pay top-dollar for new-ish releases (and overplay them to get their money's worth), but then they'll skimp on popular older fare. For CLASSIC ALTERNATIVE (read: punk and new wave), you might hear three songs from The Clash, but dozens from bands that you and the rest of the western world rightfully forgot.

When it comes to classical music, jazz or Christmas music, public domain or marginal acts wins the day. The older it is, the cheaper it is. Thus you tend to hear any recording that's past its copyright date, or, as is often the case with classical music, the Rochester City Chamber Orchestra is amply represented while anything conducted by Sir Georg Solti is conspicuously absent. I'm not sure if this is really how everything is budgeted, but it certainly seems to work this way.

Most importantly, all this stuff is recycled every six hours. I'm sure the managers of these channels have a smartish algorithm to keep people from hearing the same things back to back, but if you listen for 24 hours, you will hear the same songs four times each. With classical music, it's less noticeable. With something as horribly inane as Allen Sherman or "Dominick the Christmas Donkey," it's really really obvious.

Here's the thing, though: it's kind of fun. For instance, I knew in a general sense that Robert Goulet had a career as a singer and that there are people out there who not only know him primarily for this but also deliberately listen to him. (It's easy to laugh at this, but if the current generational analogue is listening to someone like Lady Gaga, honestly, wouldn't it be more enjoyable to see people hanging out, droppin' Goulet beats?) But for me he was always one of the cretinous New Yorkers who got tormented in Beetlejuice, or the guy who was surprised to hear that his manager Vera told him to "shut up" before singing "Jingle bells/Batman smells" at Bart's casino and pasting Milhouse in the face with a twirling microphone. Robert Goulet is actually not a fictional character. He sings a ton of Christmas music, and I bet the rights to his version of "White Christmas" cost a bunch less than Sinatra's.

Sinatra's another funny Christmas music phenomenon. I like Sinatra and own a couple of his better albums and a Capitol years compilation, but I don't love him. Yet put on the SOUNDS OF THE SEASONS channel, stand in the other room and you can hear him singing a relatively unpopular carol on a recording you've never heard before then, subconsciously, immediately register that you are listening to Frank Sinatra. Somewhere around December 23rd, while doing some kind of Christmas decoration, I said aloud to The Wife, offhandedly, "I didn't realize Sinatra did a version of this," then realized that I had not actually been actively listening to or thinking about the song at all but rather just started talking about Sinatra from some Sinatran part of the American reptilian brain.

Anyhow, over the course of days of decorations and wrapping, making two big elaborate meals, hours on the phone, hours writing cards, I listened to an awful lot of a core set of about six hours of Christmas music. In that time, I couldn't help but start thinking about it in too much detail. Some of the things that occurred to me are obviously very negative; there is a lot of bad Christmas music out there. But many others simply have no other place to go, especially at any other part of the year. For the last week or so during which they are germane to most people, here are:

The Twelve Things I Noticed About Christmas Music

1. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"
This should just be called "The Extortion Song." I have no idea why every child in the English-speaking world hasn't memorized it by age six, because it's written from the demanding perspective of the sort of child who counts the number of presents under the tree and compares it to the number he or she got last year. Seriously, have you ever listened to anything other than the chorus? Check out verses one and two:
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer

We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here

NOTE: this is originally an English carol, which probably goes some way to explaining its total cluelessness about how well-armed I am.

2. I'm sure I'm not the only one who notices this, but there are two discordant kinds of Christmas songs that always jump out in any playlist. The most obvious one is the original composition with forced "catchiness" that was obviously penned by a middleweight lyricist hoping to strike it rich with a new holiday classic that will earn them tons of money every Christmas from now until death. Most of the pop ones seem to be generated by either trying to use as many holidays-related keywords in the chorus or by running a classic song through the synonym generator. Take "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and make it "A Hope for Happy Holidays," and at least one-fifth of all listeners are already predisposed to listen to it a few times. Meanwhile, easily the most entertaining are the random Country Christmas ballads, with the sound of sleigh bells fading into pedal steel and some guy singing about getting the lights up on his truck.

3. The second most discordant Christmas song is one where some narcissist sings a decades- or centuries-old holiday staple, but then he or she changes a single line to put his or her stamp on it. I heard one woman covering "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and every line relating to time had switched to "next year." So "someday soon we all will be together" became "by next year we all will be together," and "'til next year [they'd] just have to muddle through somehow." Really? Really? What's so beautiful about the original is that having a Merry Christmas isn't a certainty. Sometimes loved ones are kept apart, and life goes a bit amiss. But the important thing is to try to be happy with the things you have — one of which should be faith that eventually you'll be able to share a peaceful and loving moment with everyone you care about. Then this bozo shows up and basically says, "Chill out. We'll all get this shit fixed by next year." The lyric is dumb, but mostly it's just shallow. The really stunning part of these changes is that someone out there said to themselves,
You know what? I'm going to take songs beloved by millions of people, songs that in many cases people have had memorized for half a century, songs that they can trace back in the same form to their childhoods, to profound connections they feel across their own lifetimes. I'm going to take those songs and tell those people to man the fuck up and learn some new words, because I'm improving this bitch.
It's like ad-libbing Shakespeare. Granted, almost every Shakespearean actor ad-libs Shakespeare now and again, because that's just what happens in live performances. You know what they don't do? Go back to the dressing room and write the ad-lib down and then shop for a publisher.

4. Alternate Carol Ideas:
Occasionally people espouse the opinion that this site offers criticism with no alternatives. Sure, it's easy to find fault with everything, but finding means of improvement is not so easy. After all, if we are all so hellfire clever, there must be solutions at the ready. And yet, often, solutions in articles are not forthcoming. Not today!—not this season!—not with so much on the line. Even though I'm due to retire and start collecting my pension in three days, to appease those readers:
Alternate Carol Idea #1: "Pigs (3 Different Ones)" by Pink Floyd
Has memorable "haha charade you are" line repeated throughout, allowing even the kids to join in.
Points out the naked consumerism of ALL seasons.
Has the really long pigs-grunting breakdown and solo.
Has the word "fucked" in it.

Alternate Carol Idea #2: The Misfits' "I Turned into a Martian"
Has memorable "whoa oh oh!" line repeated throughout, allowing even the kids to join in.
Jesus was probably an alien.
Not actually about Christmas.
Has the word "fuck" in it.
This is just the beginning. I'm sure other readers can only expand the pool. Of course, anybody who mentions "Fairytale of New York" is just batting 1.000 on predictable. All awesome people already know that. The readers of this site are, at worst, beset with contact-awesome. They bought the album ages ago. And if they didn't, God fucking help them.

5. "Dominick the Donkey" performed by Lou Monte
I'm not going to say this is racist, but I can't imagine being an Italian and listening to it. It has such an oompa oompa oompa beat to it that it makes it sound like it was constructed by charting the harmonic resonance of ethnic stereotypes and then programming them into a synthesizer. It's like the sort of thing you might hear a bottle-brush mustachioed wop in yellow checkered pants grinding out on an organ, on a street corner, while a trained monkey dances in front of a hat. Either that, or it should be the soundtrack to a cartoon of that same guy and Bugs Bunny (mistaken for the donkey) hitting Mussolini with boards with nails hammered through them.

6. Michael Schur, one of the creators of Parks and Recreation and one of the contributors to the legendary baseball blog Fire Joe Morgan once made the observation that American sports-talk radio is probably the last place where you can hear a guitar set to 1980s hair-metal-wail tones and just soloing constantly in the background for minutes on end. He forgot one other place: a Trans-Siberian Orchestra record.

If you listen to Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you are probably part of the problem. Their music is like going to a Restoration Hardware and saying, "Hello, I would like one (1) unit of dad-safe metal, please. Do you have the shredded remains of a non-metal Christmas in brushed silver?" There's such an aggressive white denial of how dorky and just fucking awful this music is, one that is probably only matched by fans of the Protomen and their refusal to admit that their music is nerd junk for nerds who wish music was actually a video game. The analogy springs to mind because this is exactly the music you would hear in the background of a violently stupid FPS when you entered "The Christmas Level." I would pay heavyweight boxing pay-per-view prices to see the entire Orchestra flattened to death by a literal Mannheim steamroller. There should be a new version of Guitar Hero where if you can perfectly play through their entire oeuvre, the game rips your balls off, because you obviously will never have any use for them again.

7. Along the same lines as the earlier entry about negativity and a lack of positivity, it seems only fitting to list five Christmas songs that are, absent any kind of clever producer/singer/musician fuckery, unimpeachable classics.
• "O Holy Night" — Difficult enough to sing that people who suck at it seem to avoid it. Hard to go wrong with anything that requires a baseline of talent. Also featured in a hilarious sequence of 30 Rock when the narcissistic "I am the only one on the cast who can sing" Jenna Maroney was about to meet some serious pipes-comeuppance at the hands of a Canadian ex-robot.
• "Carol of the Bells" — Easily the most instrumentally fucked-with and ruined Christmas carol, because its counterpoint and intense pacing leads it to instrumental interpretations from bands and artists who strain musical credibility even with vocals overlaid on their effusive triteness. Not at all surprising that this is evidently the Christmas tour de force for Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Still, it's simple enough as a piece of music and something accessible to the average person that a performance by people ringing bells by hand is something a good director can put together, something amazing to see and hear. If you can hear a decent choir pull it off without accompaniment, it's always sublime.
• "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" — One of the most protean Christmas songs recorded, it's appeared naturally in jazz, a capella choir, Jethro Tull concerts and crappy Box Set recordings, blues and a ton of rock groups' Christmas B-Sides. Despite annual abuse from those who should be kept at a long distance from good music, it has a core hope/darkness vibe. This is, of course, the only major Christmas carol with the word "Satan" in it. The core message is one of deliverance and hope, but the best delivery of this song will always be one that is gloomy, evoking an image of four bedraggled guys on a city corner, harmonizing into the night in the absence of anything else to do before the cold takes over. The carol's best pop-cultural appearance occurs at the end of Three Days of the Condor, with Cliff Robertson smirking at Redford's naïveté outside the New York Times building, then the screen freezing and the carol echoing faintly for just a second. By far, Cliff's finest work outside of AT&T ads.
• "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" performed by Judy Garland — Easily the best and most evocative Christmas carol ever recorded, this song is unfairly overshadowed by Judy Garland's life, which is unfairly overshadowed by all the significance different advocacy groups have tried to freight it with since her passing. Gay rights advocates rush to claim her (as they should, since she openly hung out with gay friends in gay bars at a time when it was taboo and may have been married to a gay man), and sufferers of depression work hard to claim her too. But this lessens her and this song. This is a sad song on Christmas, one that asks us to make the best of what we have and hope most strongly for a better Christmas to come. Garland's voice has an unmatched almost antique warmth. Despite my support for the groups that adopted her as a cultural signifier, I think she should stand on her own, for songs like this. A body of work that good should be untrammeled by interests, no matter how well-intentioned — just there, with a gramophone grain and something soft and honeyed and timeless.
• "White Christmas" performed by Bing Crosby — This is the natural corollary to hopeless desolation of Judy Garland's life clashing with the hopeful beauty of her most famous carol. Crosby had a voice like rum simmered in butter, something we gladly welcome into our homes every year. Of course, if he were here, in real life, he'd probably kick us down the stairs, just like we were one of his own children. Also, I would pay anything to switch the lyrics around so everyone was talking about children glistening. Then we could all look around the room and see which guys got erections after that line and know who to keep away from our kids.
• "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" — Every version of this song I've ever heard has been performed by a choir at some ludicrously high part of the human vocal range, so I have no idea what any of the lyrics are. I just assume it's about the kid who played Webster.
There you go—positivity! Practically nauseating.

8. "Happy Holiday" performed by Peggy Lee
No idea how this became a song in the first place, nor how it became beloved enough to make it into the regular Christmas rotation. As far as I can tell, these are the lyrics:
Happy Holiday...
Happy Holiday...!

Happy Holiday...
Happy Holiday...!

Happy Holiday...
Happy Holiday...!

Happy Holiday...
Happy Holiday...!

Happy Holiday...
Happy Holiday...!
It even ends with her just trailing off, "Happy Holiday.../Happy Holidayyyyy...." I understand we're almost all on vacation this time of year, and I understand that she has some cred in the jazz world for vamping vocally, but this is arguably the most phoned-in Christmas carol. I bear Peggy Lee no ill will at all, but it's amazing that this was not only written and recorded but covered by goddamn near everybody.

9. "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
I'm not the first person to notice that "Baby, It's Cold Outside" might as well be re-titled, "Date Rape: The Christmas Carol." I understand that it's not meant to seem menacing, but several decades of progressive awareness of women's rights and the importance of men's respecting distance and the word "no" have rendered the song just inescapably creepy. So blasting it on that front seems kind of redundant. Also, silly. It's not meant to be a date rape song, and it isn't. In fact, if we updated it, it would basically become a song about how humiliating it is when men ask for sex, and ultimately how crushingly inane their cadging and hectoring sounds. Cast your mind back to the content of the song and to, say, two virginal internet dorks of questionable attractiveness in the freshmen year of college in the Year of Our Lord, 2010:
I won't open my thighs
Baby it's just the tip

It's growing in size
Baby it's just the tip

This evening has been...
I won't break the hymen

So very nice
A tease is just paradise

My mother warned me of men
I won't put that much in

Aren't you scared of the blood?
Oh no, not this stud

I have no IUD
It's just an inch of me

Well maybe just a half an inch more
I'll last a stroke or four...

(together) Baby, it's juuuuuuust the tip!
Thirty-three seconds and nine months later, a baby with no God-like ability is born.

10. "We Need a Little Christmas" performed by Angela Lansbury
Okay, first of all, it's weird to think of Jessica Fletcher having a career other than traveling to different parts of the country to watch a random stranger die. I have watched the shit out of Bedknobs and Broomsticks with dozens of little relatives, and despite my awareness of that part of her career and of her looking unsettlingly sexually magnetic in Samson and Delilah, it's inescapably odd to confront the reality that she did something other than have a 1980s perm and the fucking kiss of death. Anyway, I have no idea what the director's instructions were for this song, but apparently they were, "Do your best Ethel Merman impression and make us believe that you can kill people in the chorus by belching up chi blasts like a bunch of Tony Award-winning hadokens." Seriously. Angela Lansbury sounds like she's stalking back and forth on the stage on a giant sinusful of Bolivian Marching Powder.

11. "The Little Drummer Boy" performed by Bob Seger
It's a perfect storm of things that should not happen. First there's the song, easily one of the worst holiday staples. Say what you will about all the inane "fa la la la la/la la, la la" bits to "Deck the Halls," but at least that's a Christmas carol for kids. We know this because of lyrics like, "Deck the halls with gasoline/light a match and watch it gleam." You can forgive a song like that for having a bunch of meaningless and catchy vowel sounds if it's a lark for the entire family. But "The Little Drummer Boy" is explicitly a carol for adults. We can tell this because of three things:
It's about Jesus, easily the most inessential and trying part of Christmas. I doubt anyone reading this site deliberately will make the "he's the reason for the season" argument, but on the off chance someone does: stop worshipping trees, wreaths and hams. You're fucking up a perfectly good long night for Irish people, who, despite already having bomb-ass ideas for a celebration, went on to preserve and illuminate the Gospel for you.
It's about doing work for strangers. If this were a song intended for children, the little drummer boy would just repeat, "I want a drum. Give me a drum. My friend Tyler has a drum. Dad said I could have a drum. Seriously, give me a drum. You told me if I didn't run over anyone's foot with my big-wheel I could have a drum. You promised a drum. You promissssssed."
It goes on and on, until approximately Lent.
Any song for grown-ass people that requires them to say "pa rumpa-pum-pum" roughly 150 times is targeted at idiots. I mean, say what you will about the "Nahhhhhhhh, na-na, na-na na-nahhhhhhhh" end to "Hey Jude," but at least it's over faster and has McCartney belt out that "Ju Ju, da-Ju da-Juday-Juday!" bit to remind you that the people involved are still alive. Second of all, you have Bob Seger. I don't think he's a bad guy. I will sing one of his songs along with you, at karaoke, if you really like it and I am properly drunk. But the guy has a really poor singing voice, one badly exposed by this plodding song that demands too much of him and goes on so long that you imagine Jesus gave everlasting life solely to it. In fact, Seger's struggles inspired this exchange with The Wife:
WIFE: Whoever told this guy he could sing lied to him. Badly.
ME: Be fair. He has no time to practice with all the hours he spends working on his night moves.
I'm pretty sure you can actually hear the tendons in Seger's neck sticking out like cables on a suspension bridge when he's wailing through each non-"rumpa-pum-pum" line. There's so much strain going on, you can practically see Bruce Springsteen singing along with it while sitting on the toilet and pushing.

12. "The Twelve Days of Christmas"
The eponymous song for this list, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse builds on the last. In practice, singing it is really, really irritating. Eddie Izzard once pointed out that all anyone really cares about is belting out the "FIIIIIIIVE GOLLLLLLLD RIIIIIIIINGS" bit, and he's right. The thing is, this is probably a drinking song. Traditionally, a lot of cumulative songs were sort of passed around in a circle, with everyone in the room trying to remember all the preceding verses and making sure to get the new one right. Those who forgot a verse had to take a drink, kiss their neighbor or do something else convivial and group-oriented. Maybe take a punch from someone. I don't really know. Anyhow, how great is that? God, Christmas used to be so awesome before protestants got their neat and manicured and stupid little hands all over it.