Stick that in your Christmas stocking
Given my generally prickly demeanor, it might be surprising that I actually rather like Christmas music. However, it’s a genre that is difficult to embrace fully. When it’s done right, Christmas music has the power to make your chest all but ache with emotion, to inspire nostalgia for holidays past and make you wish you had the ability to pass out hot chocolate and hugs to every passerby you encounter. When it’s done wrong, it can make you feel like someone has jammed a sharpened candy cane in your ear, twisting and stabbing until blood starts spurting out the other side. What’s worse is that it can be done wrong in so many different ways: it can be maudlin, it can be tacky, it can be over the top, 0r it can be insufferable in just a non-specific way. Even some of the songs I like have their flaws–for instance, I didn’t realize until many years later how silly the lyrics to Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ are. Clearly Bob Geldof neglected to research anything about the climate or geography of Africa before writing the song, as it does occasionally have snow at Christmastime, at least in the mountains, and a river does flow: the Nile, to be exact, the longest river in the world. I realize that’s nitpicking, as Geldof specifically meant Ethiopia, which really is a barren desert, but it’s still a silly song, catchy and well-meaning as it is. Even describing an entire continent as “where nothing ever grows” isn’t the goofiest moment; that would be when Bono bellows “Well, tonight thank God it’s them, instead of yooooooou!” Wait, what? What kind of weird sentiment is that? That sounds more like schadenfreude than sympathy, which is a bit jarring in a song that’s supposed to inspire you to dig deep into your pockets and feed a starving child.
Still, I’d rather listen to ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ ten times a day, every day between December 1st and December 25th if it meant I could get away with not hearing the songs I’ve listed below. They’re kind of hard to escape, as they’re all considered “classics,” which means if you spend more than ten minutes in a mall or grocery store you’re going to hear at least one of them. At least half of them will inevitably appear on various holiday compilation albums, repackaged and resold as brand new every season, in one of the great marketing scams of all time. A couple of these songs have become so beloved that they’ve inspired books and TV specials, bearing out the H.L. Mencken quote about how nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. That seems especially true during the holiday season.
And with that, in no particular order…
Trans-Siberian Orchestra~~’Carol of the Bells’. A couple of people I know whose taste in such matters I usually trust implicitly seem to love this song, so maybe it’s my judgment that should be questioned here. Trans-Siberian Orchestra has put out four albums worth of Christmas-themed instrumentals, most of them original compositions, but their cover of ‘Carol of the Bells’ is by far their most popular track. Already a dramatic song on its own, ‘Carol of the Bells’ gets a bombastic hair band treatment, complete with explosive drums and oddly foreboding gongs, which might work as the soundtrack for an outdoor light show, but comes on a bit strong when you’re standing in line at the local Costco, as you fear that a flaming sleigh is suddenly going to come crashing through the ceiling. Every time I hear it I picture a guy dressed like Santa Claus running in slow motion from a fireball, yelling “HO…HO…HOOOOOO!!!”
Paul McCartney~~’Wonderful Christmastime’. It seemed that Paul McCartney and John Lennon spent most of the 70s trying to one-up each other. McCartney was an outspoken vegetarian, Lennon was an anti-war activist. McCartney recorded with Wings, Lennon recorded with the Plastic Ono Band. McCartney insisted that his wife sing on his albums, even though she had no business getting near a microphone, Lennon insisted that his wife sing on his albums, even though she had no business getting near a microphone. Thus when John Lennon released the mawkish but undeniably touching ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ McCartney had no choice but to respond in kind a few years later. His response was the undeniably godawful ‘Wonderful Christmastime.’ Because it was released during a time when McCartney could record himself uttering a string of profanities while beating on a garbage can and it’d still sell a million singles, it reached as high as number three on the UK pop charts, eventually making its way across the pond. It’s hard to tell what’s more excruciating about this song, the shrieking chorus of “DING DONG DING DONG DING DONG!” or the rhythmic synthesizer effect that is the audio equivalent of being repeatedly flicked in the nose. It could be worse, however: according to Wikipedia, ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ was released as a single with a B-side called ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae.’
Whitney Houston~~’Do You Hear What I Hear?’ Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera may have elevated it to an art form, but it was Whitney Houston who pioneered the style of singing that involves taking one or two syllable words and extending them to five or six. Her skills are used to especially shrill effect in ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ in which she wails about “A chiiiild, a chi-i-yild, shiver-uhs in the col-ol-ollld…” On top of that, she seems to be involved in some sort of maximum volume competition with her backup singers. “Do you hear what I hear?” “DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEEEAAAAR?” Yes, I hear you, I hear you, stop yelling at me.
Bing Crosby~~’White Christmas’. I know I’m criticizing an American institution, but I’ve never understood the appeal of Bing Crosby. What is described as a rich baritone just sounds like a listless drone to me in most of his songs, like the sound a record player makes when you turn it off without taking the needle off the record first. ‘White Christmas’ is especially dirge-like, with an equally lackluster backup chorus that sounds like they were woken up from a dead sleep right before recording. Like with ‘Carol of the Bells’ I realize I’m in the minority here: ‘White Christmas’ is the best-selling single of all time, having sold over one hundred million copies since its release in 1942. It’s been covered over one hundred and fifty times, by everyone from Frank Sinatra to The California Raisins to Guns ‘n’ Roses. It’s not the song itself or its sentiment that I have a problem with, just Crosby’s version. Even his whistling solo in the middle is slow and vaguely depressing, evocative of a lonely, bedraggled bird about to fall off its perch. It’s the type of music you expect to hear piped into the dayroom of a psychiatric hospital.
NewSong~~’The Christmas Shoes’. Here’s one of those musical success stories that makes you think you’ve somehow slipped through a rip in the time-space continuum and ended up in some alternate universe, where everything sucks and no one has any taste. ‘The Christmas Shoes’ may be the only hit song that was inspired by one of those apocryphal stories your mother or an annoying co-worker insist on forwarding to you by e-mail, reaching heights that songs like ‘Don’t Let Your Kids in the Ball Pit at McDonald’s, It’s Filled With Dirty Needles’ and ‘Marilyn Monroe Was a Size 16’ could only hope to reach (I’m making those up, of course, but oh, what a world it would be if they existed). It’s a story about a man who, while standing in line to purchase Christmas gifts, overhears a young boy pleading with a cashier to let him buy a pair of slippers for his mother, even though he’s short on cash. As we soon discover, the boy’s mother is dying, and he wants the shoes so that she’ll look pretty if she “meets Jesus tonight.” Doesn’t that just make you holly jolly? While you’re wondering why Jesus would care about what shoes you’re wearing when you enter Heaven, understand this: the musical version of ‘The Christmas Shoes’ was such a huge hit on country and mainstream radio that it inspired a book and a TV movie, with the man in the store (played by Rob Lowe!) given an elaborated, tearjerking romantic subplot. Only in America could a made-up, sappy story that started by being passed around on the internet eventually achieve a wildly successful media hat trick. Play it back to back with ‘Dear Mr. Jesus,’ the uplifting song about child abuse, if you think your holiday party might be getting a little too festive.
Elmo & Patsy~~’Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’. Yeah, I know, out of all the songs I’ve listed here, this is the one you’re least likely to escape during the Christmas season. One of the most popular novelty songs of all time, it’s been recorded and then re-recorded by the husband and wife team of Elmo & Patsy Shropshire no less than five times since 1979, selling nearly 500,00o copies. To clarify, that means that 500,000 people liked this song enough that they felt they had to own it. If you’ve been living in a cave up until the very moment you read this sentence, it’s a song about a grandmother who gets drunk on egg nog, staggers out into the road near her house, then is run over and killed by Santa’s sleigh. You wouldn’t think a song like that would have such stubborn staying power, but it’s right up there with ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Deck the Halls,’ in that it’s not considered officially Christmas until you hear it. A cartoon inspired by the song aired in 2000, with some changes to the plot, in that Grandma wasn’t drunk, she didn’t die after being run over, and Santa didn’t do it. It’s also been parodied a number of times, resulting in ‘Grandpa Got Runned Over by a John Deere,’ ‘Grandpa Got Run Over by a Beer Truck,’ ‘Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer,’ and ‘Grandma Got Run Over by Obama,’ all of which warrant no further comment than I’ve made here.
Any song that mentions, pertains to or even vaguely seems to be about farting. If you demand an explanation as to why songs about bodily functions are not appropriate for the holiday season, you’re probably not the target audience for this blog. Anyone over the age of ten who inflicts ‘Farting Jingle Bells,’ ‘Buttcracker Suite’ and ‘I Pissed My Pants’ (sung to the tune of ‘Joy to the World’) upon you deserves to be given a lump of coal, and then beaten to within an inch of their lives with it. Yes, those are all real songs.
Boney M.~~’Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord’. You’ll be saying “oh, my lord!” indeed after one listen to this 1978 cover of a very lovely Harry Belafonte song. Like much of the odd, off-putting electronic music briefly popular in the 70s, Boney M. hailed from Germany. I didn’t even realize until I did the research for this article that it wasn’t one person, but a quartet, all of whom sound like they’re singing phonetically. Their reggae-inflected version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ is meant to be upbeat and bouncy, but it has the utter opposite effect on me, in that from the very first moment I heard it many years ago, I’ve wanted to take a hammer to whatever device it’s emitting from, even my laptop. It’s one of those things for me that, like the Nicolas Cage remake of The Wicker Man, defies reasonable description, all I can do is shake my head and repeat “It’s just so…bad.” Out of all the songs I’ve included on the list, this is probably the one you may be least familiar with, and be thankful for it. However, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch the video here, making sure to note the male singer’s comically tight pants and his complete failure to stay in step with the other singers. ‘Mary’s Boy Child,’ as opposed to most holiday songs, clocks in at five and a half minutes, nearly one minute of which consists of humming and is about five minutes and ten seconds too long. Fun trivia fact: Boney M. was “discovered” by Frank Farian, who many years later would be the mastermind behind Milli Vanilli, who at least had the common sense to not put out a Christmas song. Although technically they didn’t put out any songs, but that’s neither here nor there.
Wham!~~’Last Christmas’. There, I said it. I really don’t like this song. I realize that part and parcel with being born into Generation X I’m supposed to view all music released in the 1980s as sacrosanct, but the truth is that there was a lot of crap blasting out of our radios during that era, including ‘Last Christmas.’ It’s not so much a Christmas song as a breakup song, in which George Michael bitches about being dumped right after the holiday in a breathy phone sex voice. He’ll show his ex, because this year he’s going to give his heart to “someone speh-shul,” which, as opposed to everything else in the world, isn’t available through Amazon. Set to that maddening, tinny synthesizer effect that makes ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ so hard to listen to, it should probably come as no surprise that this is one of the most popular original holiday songs of the past 25 years, covered an astonishing 75 times in just that short a period of time. If that hasn’t blown your mind yet, consider this: that’s already half as many times as ‘White Christmas’ has been covered, even though it’s only been out for one-third as long. Please note that the cover for the single in no way hints at Michael’s sexuality.
Madonna~~’Santa Baby’. ‘Santa Baby’ features two things I strongly dislike: putting a “sexy” edge on Christmas and an adult woman talking in a lisping baby voice. I always found such things as “sexy Santa’s helper” costumes or ads encouraging men to give their partners vibrators for Christmas vaguely distasteful, not because I put much religious weight on the holiday season, which I do not, but because it’s irritating how determined we are to find the “sexy” aspect in everything. Observe the current state of Halloween costumes for adult women: whatever your mind can conceive for a costume, you can bet someone will make a “sexy” version of it, all of which just seem to resemble something a stripper would wear. The original version of ‘Santa Baby,’ performed of course by Eartha Kitt, was meant to be tongue in cheek, a woman’s appeal to her sugar daddy to ply her with expensive gifts. On the other hand, there seems to be something inexplicably filthy and calculating about Madonna’s version, sung in a grating Betty Boop voice. Listening to her sing about how she’s been an “awful good goil” makes me picture some Anna Nicole Smith type wearing a chintzy red negligee, crawling into the lap of her liver-spotted, 75 year-old boyfriend and cooing in his ear. That image isn’t sexy to me, and it really doesn’t put me in the holiday spirit. The Pussycat Dolls recently released a cover of ‘Santa Baby,’ and I fully expect it’s even less tongue-in-cheek and more in your face whorish than its predecessor.
So there you have it. Feel free to argue with me, or mock the fact that I don’t find ‘The Chipmunk Song’ entirely annoying. Opinions are like Christmas fruitcake: hard to swallow but we do it to be polite.