BY MALLORY SPANJER
There are generally just two reactions to the annual barrage of seasonal music that, once begun, enjoys a monopoly over the speakers of restaurants, shops, cafes, TV’s, and probably anywhere you go until the new year: adoration or loathing. Christmas music has a strong propensity to annoy particularly music fans, an unsurprising effect when you consider the lack of thought, truth, or feeling that goes into the over-produced and under-performing stuff we’re most exposed to. Somewhere in recent memory the mention of Christmas music began summoning images of greedy fingers clasping shopping carts whose owners jostle for position in long, Black Friday lines. It’s probably healthy that this does make us cringe.
Part of what makes the idea of Christmas music so trivial is the market’s saturation of the same songs. Each surfacing of a new ‘Last Christmas’ cover makes those before it less meaningful, while ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ has become a sort of escape song. Another issue is that the embellishments that new recordings use become the focal point and rob them of the simplicity that made the original meaningful.
Christmas music wasn’t always an industry. When Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’ in 1941, the public first heard it performed by Bing Crosby over the radio. The most popular Christmas recording of all time, Crosby’s version, though not nearly so musically or vocally flawless as versions recorded today, remains the benchmark. That a live radio recording is still one of our favorite Christmas songs should be an encouragement. Those songs so clearly come from a time when the holiday season was treasured for the holiday itself; a celebration of family and people and goodness instead of buying stuff and being grumpy.
Holiday music suffers from the limitations of its lyric-deciding category. Sometimes the greatest Christmas songs aren’t Christmassy per se, but songs that remind us of happy, comfortable days in December. This can especially be true for classical pieces, like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or Swan Lake. Holiday music doesn’t have to announce the coming of Santa Claus to make Christmas memories. In fact it probably shouldn’t.
Use this season to forget about what you think of as Christmas music and make your own playlist. Look for artists who don’t have radio air time in mind. Find some new originals- Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Barcarola’, ‘We’re going to the Country’, and ‘Sister Winter’ come to mind. Let’s try and change the way we define Christmas music by giving some classical pieces a chance. Abel Korzeniowsky’s soundtrack compositions are a particularly fine wintery choice. Remember that Christmas music done right can be a wonderful thing. Let’s not scoff at the category, just the stuff we hear at the mall.