Thursday, December 1, 2016

Strike up the band!

It's December, as you probably know, so there's no denying it anymore: Christmas is coming. I was even holding back a little on Sunday, when Advent started, but there's no holding back anymore. It's gonna be Christmas music in every store for the next month.

Der Bingle demands it.

We all like to complain about it because cool kids like us can't be seen digging that square stuff. But if people didn't respond to it, they wouldn't play it.

I won't go into all the reasons people love Christmas, but nostalgia is pretty important. Music and nostalgia are, of course, inseparable---music causes nostalgia and reinforces it. Christmas music becomes a time machine, taking us back instantly to Christmas past faster than any ghost with its hair on fire.

But Christmas songs have a much further reach than other music, because they extend through generations. Mark Steyn has pointed out that Christmas music is the only genre of music we have that spans all the great musical vernaculars of the twentieth century---I can't find his quote, but since I read it I have thought of it every time Christmas rolls around.

Think of the songs you hear while slogging through the mall. The rest of the year you might hear something old, like Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me" (1997) or something ancient like Squeeze's "Tempted" (1981). What might you hear in December?

  • "Merry Christmas Darling" (Carpenters, 1978)
  • "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (Brenda Lee, 1958)
  • "He'll Be Coming Down the Chimney" (Guy Lombardo, 1951)
  • "Adeste Fideles" (Bing Crosby, 1942... song written 1751 at the latest)

The oldest song I've heard in the store in the last year was maybe "Green Tambourine" by the immortal Lemon Pipers (1968).

In the normal course of passing through ambient public music, you're unlikely to hear hit songs like the Andrews Sisters' "Rum and Coca-Cola" (1945) or Al Jolson's "April Showers" (1922), but in December you could hear Vaughn Monroe's "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" (1945) and the Vincent Lopez Orchestra's "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" (1922). For such older songs, you'd also hear production styles of their times---particular orchestration, harmony, vocalisms, singing styles, things that fell out of fashion but became wonderful markers for periods of recent history. All gone, all forgotten, if not for Christmas music and the desperation of stores and radio stations to find something other than recent covers of "Frosty" and "Winter Wonderland" (and, God help us, Wham!) to fill the musical program. We may not know what Christmas in our grandparents' day felt like, but we can get an idea of what it sounded like.

So if we can get past the resistance the comes from being among the cool kids, we might have yet another reason to celebrate Christmas in America; it joins us to our cultural past in a nostalgic way as no other time of the year does.

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