“Hey everyone! It’s the holidays! Let’s spend the next month listening to Christmas music!”
I hear this every year, and every year I get angry. I actually really hate Christmas music. I just have no desire to listen to a million subtly different versions of the same 10 songs over and over again for four weeks. If you think about it, the number of widely known Christmas songs is surprisingly miniscule.
And it seems like the “holiday season” gets earlier every year. I can remember in middle and high school when the adult contemporary radio station in my hometown started playing Christmas songs the day after Thanksgiving, which was ridiculous. A whole month of adult contemporary Christmas music? Is that absolutely necessary? But this year my mom picked me up from the airport five days before Thanksgiving and informed me that TWO adult contemporary stations had already been playing Christmas music for a few days.
Besides, Christmas songs seem only to accentuate bad genres or musical styles. I think the single most unbearable song I’ve ever heard is My Chemical Romance’s cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” As much as I loved their depressive pop-punk in the seventh grade, their power chords always sounded terrible in places where one might expect to hear sleigh bells. Think of all of the music you don’t like. Do you have that sound in your head? Now remember that every single one of those bands has probably released a holiday song, and those songs sound just like bad music normally sounds, only much more boring and annoying.
There’s a reason that every band records Christmas music: It’s a huge moneymaker! Christmas songs and albums are easy and cheap to produce, so they’re a good stopgap between records for artists at different stages in their careers. This is a strategy used by new and established artists alike. 2010’s indie darlings Best Coast and Wavves collaborated on a Christmas song in a promotion for Target, just a year after old stalwart Bob Dylan released a whole album of treacly Christmas hits. Both of these projects were barely listenable.
For some reason that I do not understand, people keep on buying Christmas records, so they’re lucrative. There is a whole pernicious industry surrounding Christmas music. I am always suspicious of industries built around ridiculous things; take, for example, the fast-food industry, the marketing-to-children industry, the fake-tan industry, etc. But even these bad ideas have more grounding in reality and more right to exist than the Christmas music industry.
So after reading this column, you might think I’m besties with Ebenezer Scrooge. But that couldn’t be any further from the truth! I genuinely love Christmas, holiday cheer and spending time with my family around the ol’ Yuletime fir. And when it comes to music, I love songs about Christmas rather than Christmas songs. That is, songs that do not rehash old standards or rely on stylistic tropes like bells and excessive joy. But what worries me is when our holiday celebrations become formulaic. There is a strange and palpable oppression in these tropes of Christmas music — the kitsch is never elective or thoughtful, just rote but trying desperately to be heartrending. The nostalgia is always false, as though we know we should feel affection for these songs of the past. Maybe we think they’ll make us better people? Maybe they serve as stand-ins for real joy that we cannot turn on at will?
It’s the same oppression inherent in any blind or unthinking allegiance toward aesthetic tradition. Imagine if all music operated with the same reuse of stylistic tropes as Christmas music does. We would probably still be listening to half-hearted covers of “Johnny B. Goode” on the radio today.
So this year I encourage you to be a little more thoughtful about the decisions you make around this Christmas tree. Don’t play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “White Christmas” just because they’re happy. Think about a song that acknowledges the fact that sometimes Christmas is miserable, especially if you have a crazy family. I recommend Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s “Cold, White Christmas” or “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” by Sufjan Stevens. Or even better, you could write your own Christmas music. If you do, I would love to hear it.