Poor old Scrooge, he missed the big boat when it came to Christmas. If that seminal capitalist were alive today, he could easily be a record-company executive, and then realize the true meaning of the Christmas season: the annual blizzard of Christmas records, a parade increasingly marked by the most insincere commercial sentiments rather than any love of the season and its spirit.
At one time, there was a certain offbeat appeal to pop artists doing holiday songs. But that was long ago, when the idea of Brenda Lee singing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" or Chuck Berry coming up with "Run Rudolph Run" actually had a novel charm. By now, tunes like Elmo & Patsy's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" have become indelible standards. And sure, the new generations needed something more than Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians performing "Silent Night" or Handel's "Messiah." But the line has to be drawn somewhere, and when the Butthole Surfers chimed in with a holiday tune a few years back--entertaining as it may have been--it became painfully evident that anyone could make a Christmas record, and probably will.
This slew of seasonal music product begins with the endless recycling of the standards that the record industry has already engaged in for decades. But I lay blame for the current onslaught on Nashville, where for years it has been de rigeur for artists to--at some point in their career--cut a Christmas album. Being the shiny buckle of the Bible belt, Music City has always had a strong Christian streak. But the fact that Gene Autry sold boatloads of product with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (and still does) probably informs this custom more than any spiritual overtones.
If you talk to these country folks about their Christmas records (as I once did interviewing them for a syndicated country-music radio show, which of course did its obligatory Christmas special), you get their media-trained answers about how much Christmas means to them, and how they wanted to take their own creative approach to the notion of holiday music. Play the records, and it's usually the most calculated, saccharine stuff.
And that's the problem with Christmas records: a good 95 percent or more of them suck. Those odds may be about the same with records in general, but Christmas discs seem to bring out the worst artistic instincts. Frankly, you've got to be one helluva singer (rather than an entertainer) to bring anything new to the standards. And quickly--can you remember even one new Christmas song by a popular contemporary artist that has made much of an impact, if it even endured?
OK, one can cite Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper," John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Christmas," or maybe Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December" (all of which, ironically, share a downbeat undercurrent in this happiest of holidays). But from there on, it's pretty slim pickings under the Christmas-disc tree.
In the rock and pop world, Christmas albums have become a nice way to buff up one's image. Then there are the young soul rebels who curry street cred by deconstructing Christmas songs or taking the expected cynical stance in their own holiday tunes. We get enough cynicism from these quarters already. If Christmas can't be sacred, can it at least provide a respite?
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Not when there's money to be made, and reputations at stake, no sirree. It's Christmastime, when big cash is gleaned from the rabble. Why should the music business and its stars give up their share of the bounty to Hallmark and Mattel?
Despite the way Christmas records reduce artists to shaky members of the choir, there have been a few voices that have risen above the noisy rabble. The Beach Boys made a wonderful Christmas album, and even the Oklahoma country-rock band the Tractors put out a rather fun and entertaining Christmas disc following their sole hit, "Baby Likes to Rock It." Steel guitarist Ben Keith's 1994 album Seven Gates (which features Neil Young) is a rare bit of charming music that sets a lovely holiday mood, and The Bells of Dublin by Ireland's Chieftains remains one of my most beloved compilations of holiday music.
But as the holiday releases arrive in the mail at this music critic's door every year, I find myself rushing to get them back out the door to the used CD store before December 25. Because once that date passes, most of them have little value beyond targets for skeet-shooting practice. Merry Christmas everyone--pull!