Three years ago, I used this space to rail against “The Little Drummer Boy.” It still ranks as my all-time most hated Christmas song, because it is an enormous steaming log of bullshit drenched in sticky-sweet sentimental syrup. It’s a holiday song for the same kind of people who believe in angels: they want something quasi-religious that doesn’t ask you to actually believe in anything (except kindly, poor drum-playing shepherds).
Two years ago, I took “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to task for being misguided, self-congratulatory, and ultimately mean spirited. “Thank god it’s them instead of you”?! Go fuck yourselves, British do-gooders.
Last year, I was too busy changing diapers to get too upset about Xmas music. This year, I don’t have any specific song to lambaste (although if you’re in that kinda mood, I recommend Patton Oswalt’s takedown of “Christmas Shoes”). [New site update 12.21.08: There used to be a video of this on YouTube, but it has sadly passed into the Intertubes Graveyard.] But there is a genre of Christmas songs I despise, one whose ranks have been swelling in recent years. If I could somehow give these songs to life, I would, just so I could give each of them a debilitating case of food poisoning.
I’m talking about the rocking and/or soulful Christmas song. I suppose there is no reason why a Christmas song can’t rock or have soul, although scientists have yet to confirm his hypothesis.
The problem is, when somebody puts out a Yuletide tune with lots of squeedly-whee guitar, or sings about sleigh rides with an 8-bar-long cadenza, I simply don’t buy into it. Most rock/soul songs are about L-U-V, in one form or another, and I rarely question the performer’s sincerity, even if the song itself blows. But I simply do not believe someone who’s trying to sing like Luther Vandross when their subject is Frosty the Snowman.
This genre of holiday melody began with “Jingle Bell Rock”, a song that is now 50 years old and sounds every bit of its age. I hate “Jingle Bell Rock” because it does not even come close to rocking. And I’m not just saying that because the song was recorded in 1957. In 1957, there were plenty of people who truly rocked: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis,to name but a few. Not to mention the roughneck rockabilly acts of that era. By comparison, “Jingle Bell Rock” makes Perry Como sound like Queens of the Stone Age.
Flash forward about 30 years. Bruce Springsteen pumps out his live version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which still gets played intermittently every holiday season. I
don’t hate this song, but it bugs me because it sounds so phony, which is something I wouldn’t say about anything else Springsteen has ever done. It sounds like someone doing a bad Bruce Springsteen imitation. Not even The Boss can convince me he’s really jazzed about Santa’s imminent arrival.
If Bruce can’t do a convincing, rocking Christmas tune–live, no less–few other people are qualified to even try. But of course they do, because there’s always some dough to be made by pooping out another holiday collection to sell in Target or Starbucks. I think both of those stores now have Rob Thomas and Sheryl Crow packed in ice, so they can trot them out in front of a microphone every time they need a new next-to-the-cash-register album.
If you’re a douchetard Cali “punk” band, you can get a cheap laugh out of playing a Yuletide tune really fast. Then you can go back to playing 80s songs really fast, which is still funny to a lot of people for some reason. Sometimes I wish Milo Aukerman would give up marine biology, become a sniper-vigilante, and pickoff these pale imitators one by one.
If you’re a wispy emo songwriter, you can take time off of creating state-themed concept albums and write a few Xmas songs for the Pitchfork Media crowd. I’ll give props to Sufjan Stevens for writing several discs’ worth of Noel, rather than covering old songs, but I still don’t quite understand why everyone went gaga for this stuff last Christmas. I guess I’m just not twee enough. I’ll have to listen to more Belle and Sebastian.
Then there’s the “soul” songs. Or rather, the songs sung by artists who self-identify as “soul”. In the 1960s, “soul” meant singers like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. Now it means someone who arpeggiates every note (Microsoft Word says “arpeggiate” isn’t a real word; fuck Microsoft). The more often you can hit the individual notes in a chord throughout a song, the more “soul” you have. It’s the musical equivalent of saying the best painter is the guy who can fill his canvas with every conceivable shade of the color spectrum, regardless of how he/she uses those shades.
I find this simply annoying when I hear it on a pop radio station. I find it infuriating in a Christmas song, since they’re inescapable this time of year. You can put a million melismas into “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but I still won’t believe that your quote-unquote enthusiasm is motivated by anything but a paycheck.
Now that I’ve dumped egg nog-flavored Haterade all over these tunes, I’d like to list some non-traditional Xmas songs that don’t make me retch.
The Ramones: “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight)”
The Pogues: “Fairytale of New York”
The Kinks: “Father Christmas”
Spinal Tap: “Christmas with the Devil”
The Waitresses: “Christmas Wrapping”
MC Chris: “Evergreen”
The Pretenders: “2000 Miles”
James Brown: “Santa Clause Go Straight to the Ghetto”
Also, it’s not technically a song, but Steve Martin’s Five Christmas Wishes is definitely one of my holiday favorites. And I’m not sure they’re technically songs, either, but the Beatles’ annual Christmas greetings to their fan club members are also enjoyable; particularly the ones from the late 60s, when all four of them are stoned out of their hairy little gourds.
And I will cop to the fact that I still love the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, songs and all. I will further admit that “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas kills me every time I hear it. To quote Steve Albini (and who else should you quote around Xmas time?), “be lucky if I don’t bust out cryin'”.