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Monday, November 14, 2005

The Best and Worst of Christmas Music
(a Christmas countdown of songs that inspire, or that make the baby Jesus cry)

It's finally Christmas time, my favorite time of the year.

"Surely not yet," you say, as you gasp, or gnash your teeth, or softly weep.

I have some sympathy for that position.

I tend to jump the gun a little bit. Traditionally, the start of Christmas is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, where the Advent is kicked off by a violent orgy of elbows and groin-kicks by consumer-worshipers intent on getting the while-supplies-last $49 DVD players at Wal-Mart. Yet the Retail Borg has tried to push the date even earlier. Much, much earlier. (Mid-October, people? Christmas decorations in mid-October?!? That is insane. Can't you all just focus on whoring out Halloween and save the Christmas pimping until November?)

No, I take a higher ground. I define the beginning of the Christmas season as the day when I start planning how to wire up a nest of garish lights on my house, just as Charles Dickens did.*

* Not actually true. Dickens didn't know from Christmas lights, much less spastic wads of electric lights that my wife said "look[ed] like a Muppet sneezed all over the house." But there's a lot Dickens didn't know. For instance, he thought that Christmas was the first of twelve days of warm and gentle celebration. We now know that the twelve days after Christmas are properly devoted to a vague sense of unease and remorse now that the party's over and the credit card bills are coming due. It's the Christmas Hang-Over, often alleviated with a real hangover on New Year's Eve. Given Dickens' inability to capture the modern Christmas spirit, it's a wonder that A Christmas Carol is still considered relevant.

With the beginning of the "Christmas Season" come the first thoughts of Christmas music. Christmas music is a passion of mine (as my friends have come to suspect from my frenzied mix discs), which is why at this time every year I start to wonder -- really wonder -- whether I am a blithering idiot.

Because Christmas music sucks.

No, I shouldn't say that. Some Christmas music doesn't "suck" -- some of it is much worse than "suck." Some Christmas music is a crapulent river of filth, flowing through the air and polluting it with the stench of a bus station men's room. Metaphorically speaking.

With very few exceptions, Christmas music is mawkish, diabetes-inducing, sugar-frosted processed cheese, intended to:
(i) capitalize on the peak of a minor star's fleeting celebrity (e.g. "Hung for the Holidays"),
(ii) cash in on the fact that some people will buy anything put out by people who have a certain fame or notoriety (e.g. "Re-Joyce," the Jessica Simpson album), or
(iii) revive a faded star's career/milk the fan base one last time (e.g. the devastating opening scene of Love Actually).

It's almost universally true. Beyond that, you can only try to distinguish why this particular Christmas album is so unredeemably awful. Often, the artists are already talentless (see supra) -- and no amount of Christmas cheer can help you ignore the music, much less the dulcet tones of TV's John Davidson warbling "Santa Claus is Coming To Town." Just to give a "for instance."

Other times, the artist is minimally competent but the album is a misfire. Sometimes it's because the artist just can't engage his or her full talents, and sometimes it's because the record producers put too few resources into these forgettable albums, and sometimes its because the music is already too familiar. In all those cases, though, the underlying reason behind all these problems is one thing, always one thing, never not this one thing: people that don't give a sh*t about Christmas deciding that they want to whore themselves and the holiday for money.

Which is why I say that the music industry hates the baby Jesus.

These bastards are not just negligent, well-intentioned idiots. They are callous and contemputuous idiots who take advantage of people's benign feelings about the holiday to convert The Birth of the Baby Jesus into Cash Money. At no other time of the year is contempt for the public so nakedly exposed and so universally forgiven. If a father gave his child a steaming turd that he scooped straight out of the toilet bowl, he would be arrested and brought up on charges. And if he charged his child $16.95 for that turd, he would be knifed in prison. But Hanson released their album "Snowed In" and they're still walking the street. That's the problem. Oh, sure, there's some delicious satisfaction in knowing that a few years later you can pick up a used copy of "Snowed In" for 47 cents (plus shipping), but it's too little, too late.

So I want you to know that I am not some sort of freak who thinks that the stuff you hear at the mall and on the radio stations is good. No. No, no, no, no.

But the near-universal prevalence of awful Christmas music is why I cherish those morsels of good music that make their way into the Christmas canon. I hear them, and they lift my spirits and deliver real art, and I wonder, "How the hell did that happen?"

It takes a lot to come up with good Christmas music when all around you is filth and exploitation and low expectations. You're in a studio in June or July, singing songs that have been done to death (or that are new songs that would never have seen the light of day except that they are about Christmas), and you're working on something that most reviewers will ignore on principle, because they all know that Christmas albums are seen as the last refuge of scoundrels and idiots. It's a miracle that anyone can come up with anything interesting. Even if it's just one song that song stands out from the crowd and truly celebrates the spirit of the season, that's an amazing accomplishment. Often that song languishes in obscurity, or is overused and overpromoted until it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Either way, the upside isn't all that far "up."

So the Christmas music fan has to sift through a shambling heap of indifferent crap by has-beens and never-weres, all in the hope of finding that one song in the brief window before it vanishes into the out-of-print pile or becomes hateful through overexposure. And it is only one song at a time -- a whole album worth listening to comes along about once every five years.

Why do it?

Well, love of the holiday, of course. But it's more than that. I think that Christmas music is the ultimate challenge for any performer. It imposes a huge "degree of difficulty" that only the best and brightest can overcome.

Take, for instance, the problem of music selection. New Christmas songs are seldom any good -- usually they only get recorded because (1) the artist just can't stomach an entire album of standards, or (2) the vain hope of creating a new "classic." Neither is a good reason, so the artist is usually left with a deeply flawed (but deeply earnest) song to perform. And the classics are completely familiar to the audience. Unlike any other type of music in the modern American canon, people already know the lyrics and are familiar with at least half a dozen performances of those songs. Performers have to bring something new and fresh to the songs that are most familiar to the average American -- the "cover songs" from Hell.

It reminds me of an interesting passage I read in an article about the show "Deadwood" by Alessandra Stanley in the NYT:

Westerns are a little like men's wear or a sonnet: there is freedom in constraint, and some limits can be liberating. In the essay "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner," Robert Warshow described the western as "an art form for connoisseurs, where the spectator derives his pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working out of a pre-established order."

Christmas music is the same way. Singing "Jingle Bells" in an interesting way is as hard as writing a haiku. I'll demonstrate:

During "Jingle Bells"
I sing "Batman smells" -- for that
is more interesting

Total failure. The equivalent of the new Peter Cetera Christmas disc. You get the idea.

So for the rest of the days until Christmas, I intend to praise good Christmas music and blast the terrible stuff, one a day. Learn from my efforts. Avoid my mistakes. Seek out my triumphs. Tell your friends, check back daily, add to your collection. Demand more from the hardened criminals who release this stuff.

But if you own this album, don't bother. You're too far gone already.

 8:30 PM

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