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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Great WTF? Moments in Christmas Music
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Frosty the Snowman
Fiona Apple

There are a few great indie rock Christmas compilations (Yuletunes, Maybe this Christmas), and there are an awful lot of tired, pathetic indie rock Christmas compilations (too numerous to name, but certainly including "Maybe this Christmas Tree"). Sony's 2003 "Christmas Calling" easily falls into the latter category, because it has only two redeeming qualities -- Tenacious D's "Sh*t I Want" and Fiona Apple's "Frosty the Snowman." Yet even then, the latter is only "redeeming" because it is one of the great "What the F---?" moments in recent Christmas music.

Fiona Apple, as you will recall, was one of the reigning queens of teen angst. She wrote her 1995 debut album Tidal when she was sixteen, and her subject matter was primarily her violent rape, her parents' divorce, and the fact that guys are jerks. Incongruously, for a teenaged girl who appeared to weigh about 70 pounds, she had a smoky lounge-singer voice and a slow swing style that made the whole thing sound more mature than it really was. She then followed up with her 1999 album, which was equally overserious, but which carried the exasperating title When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and if You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and if You Fall It Won't Matter, 'Cuz You'll Know That You're Right. Her style had changed to match producer Jon Brion's quirky and twee preferences -- lots of carillon for instance -- and she started indulging that strange tremor in her voice that blows past "vibrato" on its way to a "warble."

She then went silent for several years, and given her strange predilictions, fans could only fear the worst. The flames were fanned in 2003 as rumors spread that the reason for the delay was that Sony hated hated hated her new album. How dare they! They just hate Fiona because she's so honest and she dares to use carillons and 38/7 time signatures! Then a new Fiona Apple track was released on Sony's Christmas Calling -- four years after her last album -- and it was the absolute least Fiona Apple-like song you could imagine. She had recorded "Frosty the Snowman."

First of all, she sang "Frosty the Snowman," which is positively ludicrous for an artist more well-known for penning bitter songs to her rapist. Joni Mitchell's "River," maybe. But "Frosty the Snowman?!?" Surely the Sony Borg had brainwashed her, or were punishing her.

And then her interpretation of the song was not to "interpret" it at all -- she just stands there and happily belts out "Frosty the Snowman" like she was at a campfire sing-along. No tone of resentment at being "made" to sing such a ludicrous song.

The effect is disconcerting, to say the least. It's unreservedly cheery music from someone never known to be cheerful. It's perfectly well-done, so it seems churlish to criticize it. Yet, because there is no flourish, no soul, nothing but good cheer, you come away with the impression that any member of any medium-sized church choir in America could probably have sung it just as well -- albeit with less of that weird vibrato, and less of that lingering aftertaste of the bizarre.

Is it fair to criticize the performance because it is so unexpected from that artist? Is it fair to criticize a Christmas song because it offers nothing but the generous happiness that is supposed to be the "Christmas spirit"? Is there something wrong with me that I am shocked by the absence of irony? The core question is this: What is Christmas music?

 7:08 AM

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