by carl wilson

Scrooged Up

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Today's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail: "God rest ye same old Christmas carols." [...]

God rest ye same old Christmas carols

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, December 18, 2004 - Page R4


In pre-Victorian England, Christmas caroling was regarded with alarm. Drunken wassailers staggered from door to door in high-class neighbourhoods and barked out tunes to shake down the toffs, demanding handouts before they'd move on.

In North America today, carols serve the same function, but with class positions reversed: Corporate barons use them to harangue the population to overextend its annual overconsumption binge, with the harassment duties delegated to the media.

All over the continent in recent years, radio stations have been switching over to all-holiday-music formats weeks and weeks ahead of Christmas. The trend really took off in the United States in 2001, for comfort after the shock of the terrorist attacks. When ratings soared, an industry fad became an instant tradition, with stations vying to become a market's "official holiday station" or "the preset station in Santa's sleigh" or whatever cutesy euphemism for Most Aggressive Seasonal Exploiter they could dream up in their mercenary little sugar-plum heads.

You might assume it's an American thing, like keeping a flag in the front yard. But it turns out that when it comes to Christmas, Canadians have a comparable thirst for treacle, so sleigh bells ring 24/7 from coast to coast. In the U.S., there is at least the established kickoff at Thanksgiving, though some stations have been pushing it back almost to Halloween. Canadian radio doesn't have any such excuse.

If you don't hear it on radio, you get sapped with a steel-toed stocking full of fa-la-la's if you go out shopping, since retail outlets also act as pushers of orchestrated cheer. In the U.S. this year, chains have gone so far as to hire techno and hip-hop DJs to remix Christmas chestnuts for a hipper, more spending-spurring amphetamine rush at shops such as Pottery Barn and Old Navy.

I am not trying to kick the crutches out from under Tiny Tim here. I am fond of Christmas. I feel a warm anticipation each year of sitting around the fireplace with my family drinking too much liqueur and exchanging gifts to, yes, a soundtrack of seasonal standards.

Yet oddly enough, we prefer to do it some time around Dec. 25. The new Christmasathon is like me showing up at my parents' door in late November, shouting, "Hey! Where's the turkey?" and refusing to leave. I find the manic hurry a nerve-wracking reminder of mortality, with time accelerating and hurtling us toward the grave at the speed of Santa's overnight circumnavigation of the globe. A whole month collapsed down to a single day -- why not just rename December "Christmas" and be done with it?

All-Christmas radio stations' ratings rise because some desperate souls whose lives offer too few tidings of comfort and joy park their dials there, and no one objects lest they be accused of hating children and cookies and love.

Commercial radio counts on the fact that most people don't especially care about music. It plays tunes large numbers will tolerate, rather than music you have to engage with. It turns out that many people tolerate White Christmas day in and day out more contentedly than other music. Only we eccentric few gnaw desperately at our knuckles and become cruel to our loved ones. So holiday music wins.

Yet it also loses. It loses its charge, its close tie to the occasion. If you drank eggnog every day for a month, by the time of that ritual Christmas Eve toast around the tree it would make your stomach churn.

As well, the industry chokes the ingenuity from holiday music. Musicians do their best to revitalize it: Each year brings soul, punk, bluegrass, jazz and other versions of the classics, original Christmas-in-prison country weepers, and archival finds such as the 1939 calypso tune Christmas Morning the Rum Had Me Yawning (on Dust-to-Digital records' terrific collection, Where Will You Be Christmas Day?).

But radio plays only the blandest. Aside from the latest Pop Idol covering Winter Wonderland, the freshest tune you'll likely hear on holiday radio now is the 2004 remake of the Live Aid single by the forgettable British pop stars of 1984, redone for the benefit of Sudan by the forgettable British pop stars of today. It's a masterpiece of Christmas hubris. By the missionary-minded chorus, "Feed the world/ Let them know it's Christmastime," I'm fantasizing about Arab musicians banding together to help downtrodden English dockworkers by recording the charity single, Do They Know It's Ramadan?

A similar embrace-and-conquer mentality surfaces in the self-consciously hip Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah album from the TV series The O.C. It extends the tendency to treat Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas, which would be very broadminded if it didn't contradict everything Hanukkah actually is.

The paradox is that I'd love it if radio really were much more seasonal and topical. Can we have work songs on weekdays, travelling music in summer, storm songs in the rain, political songs when there's an election on? No. Radio today is centrally programmed, timid and barely responsive to local developments, so cookie-cutter Christmas kitsch is all we get.

Earlier in December, Canadian radio stations could be delving into the nation's vast store of winter songs. Instead of the (shudder) Barenaked Ladies' Christmas disc, they could play recent tunes such as the beautiful Snow Falls in November by drowsy-voiced New Brunswick chanteuse Julie Doiron; the jagged Cold Hands by Toronto's hyperactive Creeping Nobodies; the old-time country ode Let's Fly South from Toronto string band the Backstabbers; the ice-storm themed Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) by Montreal 2004 breakout band the Arcade Fire; or the chilly electronics of Outdoor Silence by Tinkertoy.

For spirituality, they could look to Toronto singer-songwriter Kyp Harness's mystic balladry on The Miracle Business, or the gnosis-tinged Christianity of Royal City's Little Heart's Ease.

But right this minute they should be playing the crucial 1980s Montreal band, the Nils. Founder Alex Soria began playing gigs at 14 with older brother Carlos. Their songs helped shape Canadian indie music, and influenced U.S. postpunk groups such as Husker Du, as far distant as Minneapolis, despite drug problems and other ill winds that prevented their name becoming better known. Early Monday evening in his home town, Alex Soria reportedly was hit by a train and killed. He was 38.

So, Mr. or Ms. DJ, please, lay off the Nat King Cole for a few minutes and queue up River of Sadness by the Nils. The world spins on, and it's not all snowmen and gum drops, even at Christmastime.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 18 at 12:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

COMMENTS

Thanks Brian, beautifully said. I've been very struck in recent years by the disconnect between the way Brown presents himself as the consummate entertainment figure and man of Christian honour and the very public way in which a pain-ridden, messed-up man lives out the life behind that image. It inevitably soaks through his music but seldom so frankly. In any case, of course I omitted mention of scads of great Christmas music, including the sort that unearths the dark side of the compulsory festivities; I was just reading something that mentioned Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December" - what a devastating reminder of the outsized ideals the holidays force on lives that often haven't the plasticity to stretch and accommodate them: "I got laid off down at the factory/ And their timing's not the greatest in the world/ Heaven knows I been workin' hard/ I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl/ Now I don't mean to hate December/ It's meant to be the happy time of year/ And why my little girl don't understand/ Why daddy can't afford no Christmas here." But the songs that I mention in the piece are (until I reach the Nils) all from new Canadian albums - they're not meant to represent the alternative Christmas canon, but partly to nod in some deserved directions and to hint at the richness radio programming could provide if it were willing to be genuinely timely and responsive rather than going for the most predictable gimmick to massage us into unawareness of how music can speak to our real circumstances from moment to moment - just as your post so eloquently testifies. Yow! Good God!

Posted by Zoilus on December 19, 2004 12:26 AM

 

 

RE: Column, How could you miss James Brown’s "Clean for Christmas?”

It’s not easy to find. It was a cassette purchased by my friend Suzuki Kid from a service station in Slovakia. With thin drum machine and cheap, Casio organ, and above all, a tortured, hoarse and barely awake vocal (“I wanna be clean, clean, clean for Christmas”), it sounds like it’s from the early 90s, from the beginnings of Brown’s public troubles. It’s mixed on the tape with carols recorded throughout various prime eras of his career but Clean for Christmas stands out for several reasons. As revolutionary as Brown’s contribution to pop music was, his super badness always seemed contrived and as theatrical as the cape. In Christmas, the grand drama drag of super badness is replaced by super sadness, regret and the one wish shared by junkies and drunks everywhere during the holidays—not to fuck up Christmas for the family again this year. The sex machine has become human and all the more dangerous and badass for it and in the process, given us a genuine plea, a non-treacle evocation of the Christmas spirit. Will he successively 12 step through the 12 days?

A pop moment as musically terrible and honestly chilling as the final Clash single (This Is England), of which, Clean for Christmas eerily resembles.

Posted by Brian on December 18, 2004 3:33 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson