by Ryan Wasoba
Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
I don't hate hearing Christmas music as much as I hate hearing people complain about Christmas music. "It isn't even Thanksgiving/Halloween/Veteran's Day and they're already playing Christmas music at Kohls/Walgreens/Vintage Vinyl! The horror!"
I am not defending the music of the Yuletide season, nor am I forgiving those who will abuse and overplay these songs in the coming month. But I personally don't see Christmas music as inherently offensive, or at least any worse than bad pop music heard the other eleven months out of the year. Thus, I wonder: why do people hate Christmas music so?
If you expected an answer other than "it's complicated," sorry. The best theory I can muster involves the relatively small number of universally recognized Christmas songs, a catalog of around forty entries. This is low, but not prohibitively low. Great artists have worked with less and produced amazing results, but few push themselves when it comes to Christmas music. If the sound of carols make you cringe, 'tis not the songs, but the artists who are to blame.
The Christmas music situation is similar to the concept of jazz standards, those handfuls of tunes that every jazz musician knows and can pull off at any moment. Frequently a jazz musician will complain about a standard like "Autumn Leaves," and I understand why. If I had a dollar for every mediocre version of "Autumn Leaves" I've witnessed, I wouldn't be rich but I could buy a really nice delay pedal. But these standards are templates for expansion, and any grudge against a tune disappears when somebody plays a killer version. There's a saying among jazz folks that translates well into Christmas music: "It's not the tune's fault." Nothing about "Winter Wonderland" makes it any less valid than something like "Walking On Sunshine." It's all just chords and melodies and words, and don't it feel good?! But when dealing with material as standardized and worn as these Christmas numbers, a version only succeeds if the song is a jumping off point instead of a landing pad.
All this leads to the one recent exception to the rule: Sufjan Stevens, who just released his second volume of holiday music. Stevens is easily the most respectable artist who is working in this realm, and he approaches the catalog like Miles Davis approached jazz standards, respectful of the core but focused on his own creative vision. Granted, his aesthetic fits the Christmas vibe better than, say, Brian Eno (just imagine Ambient 5: Music For Sleigh Rides). Think about it: Sufjan Stevens is pleasant on the surface, complicated on the inside, and vaguely Christian. He's basically Christmas in person form.
Yes, most Christmas music is bad. But it doesn't have to be. When Shop 'N Save blares Carrie Underwood's version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" while you shop for Egg Nog, it's going to suck. Remember that Underwood made it suck.
Perhaps the stigma of Christmas music is too thick to wade through. Perhaps "Hark!" reminds you of a sad December memory or brings up angry feelings about opportunistic capitalism, and no recording will ever sit well. If that's the case, you can blame your past, you can blame our society's commercialized view of the holidays, you can blame Carrie Underwood or Sufjan Stevens, but it's not the tune's fault.