Although It’s Been Said Many Times, Many Ways

Why are Christmas songs so bad?  This is not to say that there are not any good songs, even for someone like myself who does not celebrate Christmas.  The melodies for classic songs and religious songs, like the melody for “Ring Christmas Bells” that makes the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s rendition of Merry Christmas Eve such a powerful experience, is certainly a good song.  This is helped by it being an instrumental, no doubt.  But such songs are not usually the sort that are played on Adult Contemporary charts and in stores and restaurants during this particular season.  No, I am talking about the sort of songs that haunt the nightmares of retail workers and wait staff, songs like the six Christmas songs that have already reached the Billboard Hot 100 this year:  Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (which is among the better songs of this genre), Peggy Lee’s perennial “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” “Last Christmas” by Wham, “Jingle Bell Rock,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” as well as others like “The Christmas Song” and any of the dire versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

It was, of course, listening to “The Christmas Song” that prompted me to think somewhat more seriously than my annoyance would generally lead to when it comes to this sort of material.  “The Christmas Song” was written by Robert Wells and Mel Tormè in 1945, and was apparently first recorded the next year by the Nat King Cole trio.  Nat King Cole really liked this song, re-recording it later that year with a string section, again 1953 with a full orchestra, and yet again with another full orchestra in 1961 [1].  The song has obviously resonated with listeners, peaking at #11 so far on the Billboard Hot 100 and having considerable success in countries like Sweden, New Zealand, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Canada, and the UK as well over the years.  The song has been recorded by many artists over the course of the last few decades, being a minor hit last year for Christian artist Lauren Daigle and a top 20 hit for Christina Aguilera in 2000 and being an Adult Contemporary hit for Michael Bublè in 2003, besides being an album track for such artists as Justin Beiber (in a duet with Usher), Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, John Denver, Celine Dion, Whitney Houstin, Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5, among many others.

What the ubiquity of this song in its many versions as well as the considerable smoothness of Nat King Cole, it must be admitted, sometimes disguises, though, is just how tired and hackneyed a sentiment this song expresses.  In 1946, when the song was being recorded for the first few times more than 70 years ago, Nat King Cole almost apologizes for how cliched a sentiment he is expressing in the song when he says “Merry Christmas To You.”  Again, this song is not merely expressing cliches, but is self-aware about it.  One thing most of the later people who cover this song appear to forget, at least in my hearing of their versions, is that this song was from its beginning an apologetic ode to the lack of creativity in expressing one’s desire for the comforts of a warm fire and the presence of loved ones.  Nat King Cole, to his credit, was able to express the right sort of mood when it comes both to longing for the simple if not particularly original comforts of home and loved ones, but most others do not appear to even recognize the note of gracious apology for being so hackneyed in one’s expression that Cole rightly strikes.

And this in turn helps us understand why it is that Christmas music in general is so dire [2].  There are only so many directions that one can approach when singing a song like this one.  On the one hand, one can attempt to look for a religious approach to the day, but then one has to deal with the fact that the Bible material only includes a few details about Jesus’ birth and places it in the autumn in the period before the Feast of Tabernacles, months before the end of December and in a time and place very unfamiliar to songwriters.  One can focus on the symbolism of the day, but then one is trapped making cliches about heathen evergreens cut and arrayed with tinsel and roasting chestnuts and snow and elves and reindeer and Santa Claus.  One can focus on the experience of enjoying time with loved ones and looking forward to gifts, which at least meets the experiences of many people on this day, but then there are only so many ways one can express these feelings without either being offensively flirtatious (see “Santa Baby” or “Baby Its Cold Outside”) or being crassly commercial (as in “The Twelve Days Of Christmas”).  The fact that such songs are played continually for about a month or so and so rarely add new and original notes to the body of work but more often tired retreads of the same few standards run into the ground makes this season immensely irritating for those people who for a variety of reasons just cannot get into the mood of appreciating this sort of material.

By and large Christmas songs have very narrow appeal and seem to go out of their way in offending other people.  Whether people are using the season as an excuse to transgress upon the modesty and restraint of others when it comes to gratifying their longings for intimacy, or whether it comes to encouraging large amounts of debt and crass materialism, or whether it is in shamelessly mixing heathen and Christian religious sentiments to justify practices, or celebrating snow (which is itself only present in some areas during this season) or the frozen reaches of the North, a lot of songs relating to this celebration are really tone-deaf to the experiences of other people.  Even when artists attempt to clumsily acknowledge the experiences of others, they often create dreck like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” where they assume that the absence of snow and the comforts of first world life would cause people to forget what time of year it was and assume that Christmas is something worth remembering and worth caring and celebrating in the first place.  This assumption is false.  And the frequent desire on the part of many to celebrate this nostalgia and this experience tends to alienate and irritate those on the other side of the picture, and whose feelings are definitely not respected this time of year.  It is indeed possible that this forced cheeriness is at least partially to blame for the way that some look towards this time of year with immense hatred and anger about being subjected to invocations of fake happiness and terrible music and appeals to buy things to show one’s love and affection for others.  The music of this season is certainly not all that is tone deaf, to be sure.  And to think, it is only the beginning of the season.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Christmas_Song

[2] Or terrible, dreadful, appalling, frightful, awful, horrible, or any other number of similar adjectives.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Music History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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