I turned on the stereo. Its 1979 bulbs yellowed into feeble life, the VU meters twitching. I put a hand to the perfectly weighted wheel that edges out of the front, and gouts of static rolled into the speakers, broken by babbling here, bad country music there.
I’d been dispatched on a mission: find Christmas music. The easy stop, of course, was the old-school symphony and stolidity of WFCR. That always delivers the goods when you want somber beauty.
But it was not the somber for which I spun. No, I rolled onward for the upbeat stuff, the popular music take on the old standbys everybody knows. I wanted “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” all those wintry guys.
Two stations that had gone the way of Christmas came in nicely on my warhorse—WMAS and Mix 93.1. Although it took a while to figure that second one out, since the manic announcer kept calling it “Mex nutty three one.”
Both kept a flurry of tunes spinning. I settled into the chair for a seasonal listen, espresso in hand. It didn’t take long to understand what particular, and particularly weird, things happen when popular musicians go for the jolly schtick. Christmas must be, for many a musician, an occasion to cash in with an easy song without a lot of work. Slap a little electric guitar on “Jingle Bells” or a horn section on “Frosty the Snowman” and it’s off to the bank with the royalty checks, at least if you’re Barry Manilow or Willie Nelson.
Christmas music, since it’s been an apparently irresistible draw for musicians for decades, reveals in compressed fashion the long view, the differences in popular music since a half-century or more ago. The same songs cycle in, interpreted by different singers and bands from different eras. As all of it comes tumbling into the air, a few truths are revealed.
Hear “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” too much, and you realize it’s not just imagination—the ’80s really were a musical wasteland. All the big shot pop singers of that day take a turn at emoting for a line or two about hungry children in Africa, all of them trying gamely to overcome accompaniment that sounds like an abandoned synth take from some early, turgid version of the Doctor Who theme. Keening over the top of it all is, of course, Bono, who plows up a giant furrow of earnest urgency, but delivers the awkward line, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” It’s as if no one noticed that the lyrics were penned by Gordon Gecko.
More modern efforts tend to be rather uncharming, what with overly slick production. This effect can be most readily observed in Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve Sarajevo ’12,” which sounds like an Imperial Star Destroyer delivering a Christmas bombardment while an army of Nigel Tufnel clones storms the ramparts with guitar squeals. The only thing more inexplicable is the video, in which a little girl imagines the orchestra, complete with menacing guitarist in silhouette, outside her window.
It may, however, be something else that hampers contemporary efforts. After 50-plus years of singers recording Christmas tunes, not only is the bar set pretty high, but old familiar voices and songs offer a ready sense of comfort. There’s something akin to the glow of Christmas lights remembered that infects all those old recordings. Hear Johnny Mathis croon along, or the likes of Nat King Cole, Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra, and an air of long, long ago, of sepia-toned holidays gone by, wafts right out of those speakers every time. Heck, even the weird baritone of Burl Ives seems like top-shelf vocal material. Christmas is, after all, mostly a search for the nostalgic, for holding on to something that doesn’t change from decade to decade.
As I sat and listened to all that Christmas music over the next few days, a new effect became evident. I felt, suddenly, as if hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” one more time might make me go on some sort of Scrooge gift-taking rampage (a Scrampage?). I became unjolly.
When that happens, the radio gets clicked right off. Anything that’s not Christmas-related hits the turntable. I’ve been over-popped.
I break the radio silence Christmas morning. That’s when my own helpless need for holiday nostalgia pegs the meter. I give up the fluff and go for the gold standard. Taking the voyage of pop, overload and resolution has become its own tradition. Sure, the accents might be a tad posh and the stilted delivery of too many carols eventually gets tiresome, but something about the inevitable opening of the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in Cambridge, England, “Once in Royal David’s City,” means that Christmas, at last, is here.•