Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In Defense of: Questionable Christmas Songs

Christmas music destroys all in its path. It sounds the distant thrum of an approaching toy army sometimes as early as Labor Day. By Halloween the jingling of bells and the faint whiff of canned snow makes the jack-o’-lantern’s mouth shrink with fear. Thanksgiving falls like a tissue-paper turkey into the green and red combine of CHRISTMAS! – the machine with engines parum-pah-pum-pumming and blades chopping: We! Wish! You! We! Wish! You!

We’re talking about “CHRISTMAS!” as opposed to “Christmas” just in case that wasn’t clear. The former is like mega-church Jesus (JESUS!), the latter is bible verse Jesus. The music of all-caps Christmas can even be identical, melodically and lyrically, to the music of actual Christmas. But the saccharine joyishness of CHRISTMAS! music clobbers the ears if we are not careful to find ways to tune it out.

One easy way to drown the terrible carols is to find the holiday songs that don’t offend. Or better yet, those that actually (gasp) please the ears. But we’re not here to pit the noble, mostly unsullied beauty of say, Vince Guaraldi’s seasonal arrangements against the sentimental hogwash of some pop star cashing in with another pointless rendition of “The Christmas Song.”

No, gentle reader, we offer to you a gift of debate, of justification. We come to defend the oddball splashes in the syrupy ocean of Christmas music, hoping to vindicate them in your mind and bring them to your attention again.

So gaze into the not-too-distant past and look upon these works with a new sense of wonder. Should they anger you rather than please, know that if you hunt us down and kill us, our medic alert bracelet is also a silent alarm that will wake the Krampus we keep locked in the custodian’s closet.

The first track on Barbra Streisand’s 1967 LP, A Christmas Album is the elementary-school music program classic “Jingle Bells.” Yes, Barbra Streisand is Jewish. But, to paraphrase Marvin Hamlisch, she’s Jewish, not stupid. So she joined the ranks of many non-Christians who’ve recorded Christmas tunes and chuckled all the way to the bank come January.

Streisand blusters through James Pierpont’s winter song (note there is no mention of any winter holiday in the lyrics) as if it were “Salt Peanuts” and the band had a little too much coffee. That’s probably the precise reason some listeners despise this version. Streisand also includes one of the lesser known verses of “Jingle Bells.” The arrangement plays with our expectations of the tune and fills its lungs with brisk December air. Nice one, Babs:

[courtesy of krisk, no relation to TMI’s janitor and sometime contributor]

Stay tuned for another entry or two in our mercifully brief series “In Defense of: Questionable Christmas Songs”