Sure, sure, Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" has become indelibly etched, for good or ill, in our collective memory as the Christmas song.
The kiddies all sing about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (who may or may not have run over Grandma).
Cynical punks concoct such tunes as "Let's Just Fuck for Christmas" (thank you Bantam Rooster) as blatant denunciations of the season's consumer spirit. Heck, even Chuck Berry got roped into the act with "Run, Run Rudolph," a staple on many of those strange little packages of "seasonal" sounds that have come to be known as the Christmas Record.
But no one wants to be caught with the same old Christmas tunes providing the backdrop to holiday noshing and socializing. So the reservoir of tunes has to be ever refilled. Pop stars always have and, likely, always will, cut "Christmas songs" (typically either covers of traditional carols or versions of their own hits with Christmas lyrics subbed in).
These infusions in the holiday sonic bloodstream fill some of the insatiable need for new "classics." (How else would an all-star '80s wank-fest such as "Do They Know It's Christmas?" become a holiday staple?)
But modern marketing and consumer culture demands more. So there has to be an unending reservoir of tunes to program into autopilot for Christmas Day.
Enter the strangest, most unnerving manifestation: The repurposing and repackaging of songs, compositions and ditties that have absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.
In the name of variety, Vince Guaraldi's jaunty-yet-somehow-reflective "Peanuts Theme" has become an old standby in the CD player's shuffle mix. Old Pachelbel's "Canon in D" has long been assimilated into the processions and recessions of wedding parties, but its accessible sense of ritual has allowed it, too, to transcend summertime occasions — the canon has found itself whispering its way out of the stereo speakers at many a holiday mixer, or providing the backdrop for noshing on the Christmas goose.
And, thanks to the either inspired or insipid holiday music packaging whizzes, Mr. John Coltrane's bop chestnut take on "My Favorite Things" is now, officially, a standard when the luminarias and twinkle lights decorate our yards.
But we're in control of our own musical destiny, are we not? Don't we all have some say in our aural associations with the season? If there's just one thing that that sage philosopher Adam Sandler has taught us, it's that we can create our own holiday music when we see the need (his "Hanukkah Song" has become a sort of seasonal classic in its own way).
Let's repurpose our own holiday music, dammit!
As yours truly sits writing these words, the poetic, 4 a.m. new wave-ey Rolling Stones marching band music of the band Jonathan Fire*Eater is actually putting me into the Christmas spirit. Perhaps it's that the music conjures the deep heart of a too-insulated winter night when dark comes too early and time slows to quarter-speed. It makes me wish I'd had this music while I was a kid waiting with bated breath to hear the clop-clop of reindeer hooves on the roof.
Then again, I always find myself listening to Bob Marley's Legend or Babylon By Bus. At a time of hypermarketing and blowing the credit card wad, there's nothing quite like Marley's rebel music to remind you that Babylon's all around. Plus, it keeps me sane when faced with the prospect of inadvertently hearing Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" one more friggin' time.
And I'm not alone, either. Metro Times Pitch'd columnist and electronic artist Brendan M. Gillen is pleased to report that he's likely to be spinning tunes by Krautrock torch-bearers Can ("It's perfect background music if you don't really want to pay attention.") and Prince's sexy millennial workout, 1999.
But Gillen's years at Ann Arbor's WCBN-FM have given him the perspective needed to maintain the big holiday picture. As the holiday draws nearer, he'll likely bust out Doug E. Fresh & the Treacherous Three's Christmas raps (the uncensored versions, of course) and James Brown's "Santa's Got A Brand New Bag" (one of the finest of the above-mentioned pop-star commercial retoolings).
MT Managing Editor W. Kim Heron is faced with a similar challenge every year. His cohorts at Detroit public radio's WDET-FM fire up the Christmas spirit each holiday and, since Heron's Sunday night jazz program is a cutting-edge affair, the typical just won't do. His faves? John Lewis' "Skating in Central Park" which, for him, somehow subliminally, leads to a natural segue into Ran Blake's "Short Life of Barbara Monk." Heron also recommends Lester Bowie's "Almost Christmas," a tone poem with trumpet and ambient backing. Though not all specifically about Christmas or dealing with seasonal musical motifs, these pieces conjure another sense of the holiday regardless.
Whether you bust out Christmas tracks by Luke Skywalker, Reba McEntire (who's made a cottage industry of herself through the Christmas album) or Rosie O'Donnell (she's got a new album of duets out this season, you know) — or even if your idea of holiday music is Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, be sure to fly your sonic flag proud. Let the spirit, not the marketing machine, move you and you'll be singing along, no matter how jaded or merry you may be.
Soul in the spirit
If you must buy a new collection of Christmas tunes every year, at least choose carefully from the bumper crop of holiday-related pabulum.
Music fans can count on reissue giant Rhino Records 99 percent of the time. Their song selection, repackaging and liner notes are inspired and thorough. That's why it was such a pleasure to open a package (Yes, critics get records free in the mail. Sorry.) containing Rhino's Smooth Grooves, A Sensual Christmas.
Contained in the grooves, er, digital encoding, are prime cuts from Isaac Hayes ("The Mistletoe and Me," of course), the Staple Singers (a pop-gospel workout called "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas"), the Emotions' wonderfully cheesy "Black Christmas" and the Godfather of Soul's smoky, righteous "Santa Claus is Definitely Here To Stay."
While some of the cuts may cause you to bust out laughing while getting your moves on, the sensual vibe is a welcome change from snuggling up to, say, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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