Ethics Alarms Encore: “Christmas Music Blues”

[The previous post reminded me of this one, from 2015. Here it is again, slightly updated and edited. It’s as accurate now as it was then, unfortunately.]

At the rate things are going, I am certain that before long no pop vocal interpretations of traditional Christmas music will be easily accessible on the radio. This is a cultural loss—it’s a large body of beautiful and evocative music—and someone should have, one would think, the obligation of preventing it. But I have no idea who.

I realized this when I felt myself getting nostalgic and sad as I listened to a series of “Christmas classics.” For one thing, they all reminded me of my parents, whose absence beginning in 2011 permanently kicked my enjoyment of the season in the groin. For another, all the artists were dead. Bing: dead. Frank: dead. Elvis: probably dead. Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Burl Ives, Gene Autry, The Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, Elvis, Karen Carpenter, John Denver–dead. Long dead, in most cases. Christmas has become a serenade of dead artists. Except for the narrow range of country music stars for those who enjoy “O Holy Night” with a twang, living pop artists don’t sing these songs. OK, Mariah Carey, Josh Groban and Michael Bublé. Not many others. A few years ago, Sirius-XM was so desperate to find living artists that it was playing the Seth McFarland Christmas album. Seth can sing, but I’m sorry, but it’s hard to enjoy “Silent Night” while picturing “The Family Guy.”

Current pop stars are, understandably, looking for new Christmas hits that will be identified with them, and those have always been hard to come by. Bing Crosby made annual recordings of terrible entries in the Christmas song market—I just heard a station play a few of them. Gene Autry too: many of his efforts were bombs, though I rather like this weird one:

Modern Christmas songs aren’t about Christmas anyway; they are about sex. Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” an ode to feminine gold-digging and sex for favors, has unfortunately become the template. The last bona fide Christmas hit that wasn’t about sex (or a joke, like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”) was probably Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” The last religious-themed Christmas hit was Bing Crosby’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, a personal favorite, which you can read about (it’s a great story) and listen to with this post. That was recorded way back in 1963. But It isn’t just “Silent Night” that is leaving the mainstream culture. “White Christmas” is on the way out too.

I’m sure you can guess why.

The massive effort to banish Christmas carols and even pop Christmas songs from the schools is also having its intended effect. I wonder how many millennials can sing even one verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”? Few of these are sung on the contemporary pop holiday albums, but they will continue to fade, too. Once there is no audience for Bing, Frank and Nat (Who are those people?), the only recorded renditions will be by opera singers (ARGGH! OPERA! RUUUUUUNNN!) or The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (ARGGH! CHURCH! RUUUUUUNNN!), and, for a while at least, country western singers, whose versions of the carols will convince at least half the population that those carols were never any good anyway.

Who has an obligation to stop this process? I don’t see anyone. Pop stars are obligated to make their audiences happy and sell recordings Radio stations are obligated to cater to modern tastes, not the tastes of their audience’s grandparents. Yes, Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas “(1942) is still and forever the best-selling single in history, but that’s only because singles aren’t sold any more. Can you imagine a Christmas-themed song being a best-seller over a period of years now? Like Bing, Judy and Frank, we will never see that again. Or that America again.

One silver lining to this cloud that I neglected to note in 2015 is that without Christmas, many of those great singers of the past would never be seen or heard at all. Even as their songs fade from popular consciousness, the classic Christmas repertoire keeps the memories of some remarkable talents alive with their brief seasonal emergence. The problem is that the echoes grow fainter every year.

We’re losing the spirit and the traditions these songs represent. What else important does that mean we’re losing? My son would say, I bet, “Nothing.” I’m not so sure of that.

18 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Encore: “Christmas Music Blues”

  1. When George Floyd, Kamala Harris, and Stacey Abrams are the new gods, and the new gospel is that Western culture is irreparably tainted by racism, it logically follows that a holiday that is one of the anchors of that culture (though not for as long as some people think it was) should fall out of favor. That said, with youtube, etc., pretty much any Christmas music you want is available whenever you want it. Also, if you belong to any kind of traditional church, the carols will continue there. There’s also always “classical crossover” if you are ok with it. Katherine Jenkins, Andrea Bocelli, and that crowd still do some great work and still bang out the recordings.

    Ultimately, the responsibility for keeping the Christmas spirit alive lies within all of us, the same as the responsibility for keeping America America. Unfortunately, too many people seem to think that discarding the problems from the past means discarding the entire past. The religion that sprang from the first Christmas has fallen short many times, but that’s not an excuse to just discard its ideals and say it’s all a bunch of hypocrisy. The idea of respecting others who might not be into this holiday is a good one, but it is not a good idea to take that so far that you give up the holiday and all it means completely. Some people’s families might not be the best, but that’s not an excuse to sneer at the idea of gathering with family at all.

    One other thing, the holidays are supposed to be a time of joy – celebration of everything that’s good. They serve the very valuable purpose of giving people something to look forward to, something to be happy about, and something to be at least relatively united in that joy. Take them away, and all those things go away, and the year just becomes a long dull time where we work, pay bills, and do nothing special, and winter just becomes a cold, gray bucket of suck. Thanksgiving is already on its way out with the millennials and younger, who’d apparently rather read “land acknowledgments” and beat themselves up just for being American rather than give thanks and enjoy all the benefits of that. There’s probably not a single holiday on the calendar that doesn’t get a challenge, sometimes a very aggressive one, from the Great Stupid except MLK Day and this new thing called Juneteenth. Ultimately it’s going to be time to say “enough.”

    • The latter part of your post sparked something in my Rush-and-Dr.-Pepper-Deprived mind, and it related to something I saw trending on either Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. During the Thanksgiving holiday, I saw people posting photos of their festivities but what struck was the tagline: It wasn’t “#Thanksgiving” or “#givingthanks” or some such. It was “#friendsgiving”. Curious, I followed the links and reached two disparate conclusions:

      1. This is just millennials and hipsters being millennials and hipsters, or, more nefariously,
      2. This is a repurposing of thanksgiving, and celebrating something “new” and 21st century.

      If number 1, then the millennials will (hopefully) come to their senses. If number 2, then our culture is toast because it is an affirmative rejection of cultural and social values that make a cohesive society.

      That made me think that the traditions underpinning the culture are being stripped away, much in the way Steve’s comment illustrates. But, the culture will suffer as a result, and what routinely kept society functioning and moving will be wiped away, I guess because celebrating Thanksgiving somehow validates colonialism, Western European conquest of “First Nations” or white supremacy, in favor of promoting the idea of Diversity or Inclusion or Equity, right?

      jvb

  2. Mark Lowry’s “Mary, Did You Know” is a recent classic that bears a listen or three. You should have no trouble finding an instance that showcases Mark singing with the Gaither Vocal Band. It should not be missed.

    Otherwise, there’s unfortunately much truth in what you write.

  3. On the flip side, I’m working with a number of carolling groups this season, and not only are gig numbers up, but across the board, people are requesting “Silent Night,” “O Little Town,” and “Angels we have Heard” far more than Jingle Bells and Rudolph. Having a couple stop to ask for “O Holy Night” and then by the end of the song having two dozen people stopped with phones out, beaming from ear to ear is quickly becoming one of my new favorite experiences. I figure radio is just another front on the culture war. They’d love to see God and devoutness and respect fade away in favor of consumerism, perversity, and uniform mediocrity.

  4. I still hear the classic Christmas music on the local radio. And I would argue that the internet is bringing singles back, since purchasing, or at least listening to singles is easier without the vinyl or tape taking up space.

    And what about Manheim Steamroller? I think the case can be made that their renditions are keeping the classics alive, while at the same time creating new “classic” Christmas sounds that should last a few generations.

    I think we’ll know for sure how much juice the oldies have left when today’s little kids grow up to have kids of their own. I feel a bit more optimistic about the future of classic Christmas music, since a large part of Christmas is nostalgia. Kids these days may not relate DIRECTLY relate to classics that were old when their parents were young, but they’ll still grow up remembering said classics as part of their childhood Christmases. So even if they’re not on the radio in the place where they’re raising their own kids, they’ll still play them in the house to bring back those warm fuzzy Christmas memories. And their children will likewise associate those songs with warm fuzzy Christmas memories.

  5. I listen to a variety of Christmas music, including all the classics Jack cites, but in recent years I have been pulling out a couple of Christmas music CDs by jazz pianist Beegie Adair for extended play. She mixes a variety of traditional Christmas hymns and popular music in a wonderfully listenable style. Shes always worth a listen.

    • For Christmas jazz, its Oscar Peterson for our family. if a CD could wear out, this would be one. But I look forward to checking out Beegie Adair!

  6. Is 1994’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey really about sex, I don’t think so? It is the largest selling physical media single Christmas song by a female artist. And it seems to be getting more popular. Not my favourite by a loin shot but as a recent-ish song, it shows that Christmas pop music is not dead. Bing and Bowie’s “Drummer Boy” duet is a big favorite in this house.

    • Was “loin shot” intentional? If so, brilliant! If not, I’ll fix it.

      Personally, I hate that duet, but I also hate the song, which makes no sense at all. But the lyrics Bowie had to sing were even worse:

      “Every child must be made aware
      Every child must be made to care
      Care enough for his fellow man
      To give all the love that he can”

      What kind of totalitarian sentiment is that: “Every child must be made to care”?

      • Just imagine if all the children were made to care, there would be no more wars at Christmas, just all the children living in peace! Imagine if there was no possessions, no need for Christmas presents. imagine if John Lennon followed up your favorite some with a Christmas tune.

        If only I was smart enough to think of loin shot. I just wanted regular old long shot. Did you not have a good one the other day or did I just misread the note about Spuds and your gift afterward. Did you say “We’re thinking of you, and hope you can enjoy the Christmas in spite of everything” where spit was subbed temporarily for spite? Couldn’t come up with a better typo if you tried.

  7. There are some pretty great renditions of Christmas classics by the likes of Cee-Lo, Mary J. Blige, Al Green, Whitney Houston, etc., most of whom are still alive. As well as excellent versions of classic songs by popular Christian/crossover artists like The Fold, Future of Forestry, and For King and Country, where you can still feel the sincerity in the spiritual lyrics. Just have to dig on Spotify a little. I even have Christmas covers by Weezer and Sufjan Stevens that I like in my playlist. Mixed in with those nostalgic dead-artist originals that you wrote about, which don’t make me feel sad at all, probably because I don’t have any memory of them being alive and in their primes.

    • Sirius-XM’s channel devoted to “contemporary” renditions of Christmas songs sure seems thin, often defaulting back to the Dead Zone. Meanwhile, finding actual carols or Christmas songs not about Santa, Winter, or romance on FM radio is tough—inspired by your comment, I spend about 30 minutes searching last night as I tried to find bearable background music for hanging tree ornaments. I don’t doubt you at all, but the evidence still suggests the traditional stuff is fading away, and fading out of memory. I also checked the play lists on the new Christmas albums contemporary artist put out this year. It sure seems like (aside from the country artists) that anything with religious themes is filler. Doesn’t the fact that you have to “dig” on Spotify make my case?

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