Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Jingles

It's been a busy Christmas. Not so much for me -- I mean, you know, same as ever, I guess -- but mainly for musicians. It seems like everyone even vaguely relevant released a Christmas song this year, which seems a little odd.

Typically contemporary Christmas songs are the stuff of tired musicians looking for a quick payday (it wouldn't be unreasonable to be astounded that anyone actually payed money for Jessica Simpson's Rejoyce: The Christmas Album in 2004). But 2010 is a new year, and things are different now. Now, when song distribution has regressed to the model of single sales, as mp3s have become prioritized over albums, it's acceptable to put out three minutes of seasonal cheer on iTunes and blogs. It's a charming, easy way to remind fans that you exist.

Everyone's been doing it, large and small groups alike. The Roots, as part of their day job as Jimmy Fallon's house band, performed a Christmas song; critic favorite Beach House made the lonely "I Do Not Care For the Winter Sun;" blog buzz couple Best Coast and Wavves recorded the jingly-in-both-senses-of-the-word "Got Something For You" as a promotion for Target stores. Stereogum has compiled a pretty comprehensive list; the number of entries are astounding.

And hell, even after dominating pop culture and inspiring poorly thought essays on celebrity for the better part of the year, Kanye West released a Christmas song, "Christmas in Harlem," the last of his G.O.O.D. Friday free online releases Like everything he's done this year, it's one of the best stabs at making a Christmas song not sound awful.

The best non-traditional Christmas songs, the ones sung by musicians we actually like, not just Bing Crosby and piano players at Macy's, are able to adapt the wintry feel-good aesthetic to something more plainspoken. I'm speaking here of John Cale's "A Child's Christmas in Wales," Sally Shapiro's "Anorak Christmas" and John Lennon's "So This Is Christmas," or the Sonics' "Santa Claus." These songs acknowledge what Christmas is supposed to be, according to Coco-Cola ads and Hollywood movies, and neither confirm nor deny that meaning. They don't claim that those images are lies, nor that they're the total truth. The best Christmas songs exist in the space between the canon and the rejection of the canon, speaking about Christmas in the vocabulary that anyone who grew up watching It's A Wonderful Life every year well knows.

Because Christmas, however stupid it is, is what schmaltz was made for. It's nice to believe that, in a world where things are awful and good people suffer and die every day because events beyond their control, that things are okay sometimes. That a little bit of snow, some cider and the smell of pine trees and cookies makes things okay.

Or, the opposite. It's also nice, sometimes, to acknowledge that those things don't make everything alright, even if we'd like them to. Sometimes going home, spending awkward dinners with family members we have a hard time connecting to and drinking with high school friends who aren't friends anymore is really kind of a bummer. It's not what it's supposed to be, but it's supposed to be something.

But Christmas is one of the few times when we, as a Western culture, agree in our acknowledgment of what a season ought to mean, whether it ever does or not. Christmas is still supposed to be something, even if that thing is kind of silly. Musicians that perform variations on that established theme are putting themselves out there, since there's nothing worse than a bad Christmas song. But a good one always hits the spot.

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