I am a liberal in almost every way imaginable. Politically, socially and economically I side myself with the far left, with those who embrace the new, progress with the times and put others before themselves. Even in music, these traits seem to hold true, for the most part. I value change, seek the daring and champion the little guys. This is why I listen, for the most part, to independent music. There is, however, one particular (I don’t know if you can even call it this) `genre’ of music that finds me a staunch, old, cranky, Bible-thumping, dare I say it, conservative, and it’s only heard one month a year. That’s right, I’m talking about Christmas music.
In speaking or writing about this kind of music, I don’t bandy about and use the term `holiday.’ There are very few `holiday’ songs out there, much less those played in malls and on the radio. I’ve worked in retail for fifteen years, and thus have some kind of credibility on the subject, having gone through that many retail Christmases. Truth be told, I’m almost at my wit’s end with the stuff. I’ve nearly been driven to the point of outright sabotage perpetrated upon the innocent stereo system, force-fed this sappy tripe. Sorry, I’m losing my way.
It’s not that I don’t like Christmas music; it’s just that I find a clear demarcation line between that which is good and that which is horrifically awful. Plus, I find myself loathing those people who revel in it. You know the ones, those who want to start playing the music after Halloween as opposed to Thanksgiving. Unlike most conservatives, I am completely aware of this particular flaw. I’m not following the crowd like a `dittohead’ salivating at the thought of the impending arrival of Santa Claus. So, maybe that makes me a liberal again! I’m so confused.
Let’s stat with the religious, and then get into the secular. For me, when it comes to Christmas music, there’s no beating the classics played and sung in vast churches. I suppose that makes me a traditionalist. It’s one of the few reasons I value my Catholic upbringing. The crown jewel is, of course, “O Holy Night” written by Adolphe Adam in 1847. To me, that is the pinnacle of Christmas music. “We Three Kings,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” are the types of hymns that really feel like Christmas to me. Essentially, any song with `ye’ in the title will do. I realize at this point that I am beginning to sound like Linus Van Pelt, getting all preachy about the true meaning of Christmas, so I’ll skip to the godless holiday music, the kind that we are all now overly familiar with as it invades every part of our lives during the month of December.
This year has seen probably the absolute worst glut of terrible Christmas music. I don’t know which album triggers my gag reflex more, James Taylor, Bette Midler, Il Divo, those Celtic Women, or Michael Bublé. Actually, the truth is, I know exactly which one stirs up the bile more than any other, and that’s the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This band is the greatest affront to auditory pleasure in the history of any holiday. If you don’t know who they are, first of all count yourself lucky, and secondly, here’s a short introduction. There once was a really terrible prog-Christian-metal band from Florida called Savatage. Sensing a void in the prog-Christian-metal market for Christmas music, some of its members created the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which is essentially Santa and Jesus jamming with a couple of flying vee’s and throwing the now obligatory and ridiculous devil horns. I mean, c’mon, when little girls watching a Hanson concert are throwing horns, you know the party’s over.
For the most part, modern Christmas songs are not good. There are a few exceptions, such as Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song,” the Sinatra version of “A Christmas Waltz” and Dean Martin doing any number of boozy holiday numbers such as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The astounding thing about the last song, which I actually like, is how easily I can come to hate it. James Taylor’s recent duet with Natalie Cole on the track manages to suck every bit of life out of the song and spit it back up with some incredibly horrendous ad-libs. In actuality, however, this year is probably no different than any other. Last year, we had the Clay Aiken Christmas album, so it couldn’t have been that great of a time for holiday music. Maybe it’s just that I’ve reached my breaking point. I just know that if I snap in some kind of Michael Douglas in Falling Down kind of way, James Taylor will be on the overhead speakers. I finally understand why Lester Bangs dreamed about killing the singer / songwriter.
The tunes from the fifties and sixties are usually not too bad when done by the crooners, but there are two songs, which will remain my least favorite in the holiday canon. My second least favorite Christmas song? “Jingle Bell Rock.” As if the original “Jingle Bells” wasn’t bad enough, there comes “Jingle Bell Rock.” There are no more inane words sung during the holidays than, “Giddy-up, jingle-horse, pick up your feet” or “Mix and a-mingle to the jingling beat.” At least you’d think so, but then came my least favorite song, “Santa Baby.” I won’t even explain myself on this one as I know that there are a lot of you out there who share my pain when it comes to this track, especially the cloying Madonna version that deserves a blasting from history more than almost any other song in existence.
Besides some of the classic crooners, such as the aforementioned Sinatra, Cole, and Martin, as well as Bing Crosby, Andy Williams and a handful of others, there are only a few artists and / or albums that I can bear during the holidays. One such group is the Muppets. I’ve always loved Jim Henson’s creations, and somehow that gives them carte blanche as far as I’m concerned about the whole fiasco. Even when they sing the insipid “Twelve Days of Christmas” with John Denver, I still manage to smile giddily. Another such exception is the great Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Guaraldi’s piano-jazz trio takes on some of the classics, but also turns in original gems that are now classics such as “Christmastime Is Here” and “Skating” as well as the Charlie Brown special staple, “Linus & Lucy.” Finally, this year found me rethinking the entire holiday music genre with the release of one particular album. In essence, Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas was the impetus for this entire rant.
You see, Sufjan seems about as conflicted about the holidays as I do. Songs with titles such as “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” and “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It)” seem to highlight Stevens’ misgivings about the season. Lyrics throughout some of the tracks decry various aspects of the holiday almost as much as Linus does. Yet, intermingled among these tunes are absolutely gloriously beautiful takes on some holiday classics as well as some stunning originals such as one of the latest, “Sister Winter.” Somehow, through all the commercialism, phony spirit and ridiculousness of the holidays, Sufjan has saved Christmas, at least for me. He’s made me believe in Christmas music again, if only because every year he made a personal set of music for his family and friends and then shared those songs with us. And, to further prove my point, almost all of Sufjan’s covers are of the traditional religious sort such as “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Now, if only Sufjan, the Muppets and Charlie Brown could do a Christmas television special together. Then my life would be complete.