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December 19th, 2001 JAY HORTON | Music Stories
 

Hark, The Herald Angels Sing!

But the bastards ruin it for everybody else.

     
Tags:
the pogues

You loathe Christmas, I'm sure. And I'm sure you loathe it for all the fashionable reasons: the forced caroling, egg-infused cocktails, economically taxing gifts, insincere pleasantries, animated specials, family gatherings, the relentless red and green, an ambience of guileless glee at odds with your "world-weary intellectual" persona.

In other words, you hate Christmas for the same reasons you love it.

In an ever-more-fractured society, the only moment when all Western culture breathes as one--bombings, assassinations and celebrity divorces notwithstanding--revolves around the commercialized spectacle of a religious holiday hijacked from pagan celebrations. The most hardcore among you shall, at best, consciously avoid, scorn and belittle the holiday. (Something besides apathy! Well done.)

Christmas is just as inescapable on your stereo as on your daily errands in the street. Christmas music once served to glorify the Son of Man upon the date of his birth. Twentieth-century pop elaborates: Whereas once huddled castrati trilled the glories of Christ, now 'N Sync's Xmas album jostles with a vast cottage Yuletide industry. Within every genre, most significant artists render the season in song. Yes, usually awful songs--but you could say the same of songs concerning love, death or sunsets.

Just as there is a romantic ballad for every taste, Christmas songs come in a dizzying variety of sentiment and topic. Tom Waits' "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" barely mentions the blessed day. "A Hazy Shade of Winter" couldn't really be about, say, late January. Since the Dickies' bravura "Silent Night," every standard has been reworked at sloppy triple speed, and quieter, more precious new groups have flirted with the quieter, more precious carols. "Difficult" bands adopt melodies. Whiny bands pretend joy. Indie bands experiment with honest emotions. And yes, the curmudgeons have their say as well.

Everyone waits for Santa. One way or another.

Pop tends to treat Christmas as a routine, memorable in spite of its predictable arrival every Dec. 25. It's not so much about spirituality as it is about annually repeated rituals--reunion, communion, commerce, harsh final exams.

Aimee Mann's "Christmastime" details a thoroughly average Yule routine with savage ambivalence. In Bing Crosby's "Christmas in Killarney," Run DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" and the Flaming Lips' "Christmas At The Zoo," families and neighborhoods, lovingly filtered into memory's sepia-tone, survive as gleaming vacations from mundane reality. "Christmas Night in Harlem," Louis Armstrong's bubbly portrait of folks "lit up like a Christmas tree," echoes bustling street life with secular, swinging enthusiasm. It's "Silver Bells" for revelers who stay up past midnight.

Christmas is for children, they say. And indeed, the naked, craven greed of the little bastards touches hearts both young (as in the Kinks' "Father Christmas," which envisions the holiday as an opportunity for juvenile blackmail) and old (see Eartha Kitt's "Nothing for Christmas," Xmas as rationalized prostitution).

Songs mourning the picayune tortures of holiday commercialism constitute another subgenre, ranging from Miles Davis and Bob Dorough's smirking hipster satire "Blue X-Mas (To Whom It May Concern)" to Dead Moon's fatalistic garage rocker "Christmas Rush." "Santa Baby," the Puff Daddy/Salt 'n' Pepa version, relishes the opportunity for materialist excess with Ghetto Fabulous carnality. Still, poverty 'midst a state-supported festival of mercantile splendor remains troubling--"If I wasn't a boy, I wouldn't'a had nothing to play with," sighs Onyx.

Some Christmas songs depict the rest of the year as occasionally interesting coursework leading up to the Big Exam. (I'm sure there's a sex metaphor that works just as well, but it's Christmas, and this is a family paper.) With fey, garbled, infectious abandon, St. Etienne's "I Was Born on Christmas Day" applies a uniquely egocentric view to Dec. 25. "Christmas Wrapping"--the Spice Girls' pally version, Save Ferris' arrhythmic Los-Feliz-Jew reworking and, especially, The Waitresses' iconic original--puts the 12 days in their own category of Special Time, apart from the grind. In the Spice Girls' words, "So deck the halls and trim those trees/ Raise up the cups of Christmas cheer/ I just need to catch my breath/ Christmas with my mates this year."

And then there is self-pity.

For the Pogues' "Fairytale Of New York," another Christmas "in the drunk tank" presents a chance for our hero to unleash self-loathing and pray for redemption. Christmas isn't at all the point. The song has little to do with Christmas, really, and yet "Easter in the drunk tank" just wouldn't be as poignant. And that's really the point of songs about Christmas--these days when we're all fixated on the same thing, like it or not, set the perfect stage for musings on just about any subject.


"Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" is included on Tom Waits' Used Songs: 1973-1980.


The Dickies' "Silent Night" is a track on The Incredible Shrinking Dickies.


Dead Moon's "Christmas Rush" is part of Sympathy for the Record Industry's Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus collection.


"Christmas in Killarney" can be heard on Bing Crosby's Voice of Christmas.


Louis Armstrong's "Christmas Night in Harlem" is on his Christmas through the Years.


"Christmas at the Zoo" can be found on the Flaming Lips' Clouds Taste Metallic.


"Santa Baby," with Puff Daddy, Onyx, et al., appears on A Very Special Christmas 3.


"Blue X-Mas (To Whom It May Concern)" is featured on Rhino Records' Hipsters' Holiday. Rhino's A Child's Celebration of Christmas features Run DMC's "Christmas in Hollis."


"Christmas Wrapping" appears on The Best of the Waitresses, and "Fairytale of New York" is on the Pogues' The Very Best of.... Both songs are on the compilation The Edge of Christmas.


Three years have passed since 'N Sync blessed us with Home for Christmas. Can you believe it?
 
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