Searching for a Gift That Keeps on Giving

Although with the late arrival of Thanksgiving this year it’s somewhat shorter than usual, the holiday season is fully in gear. The pundits claim that consumers aren’t shopping with their usual euphoria, but the decorations are everywhere and so is the music—from radio stations to shopping malls—which leads me to a conjecture: Might the songs we hear over and over again every December be the final vestige of a mainstream repertoire?

All I need to do is write these titles, and you’ll immediately know the tunes: “Deck The Halls,” “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” etc. But how many of you can hum the tunes that go along with the following titles: “Live Your Life,” “Lollipop,” “Low,” “Whatever You Like”? Hint, each of these songs were declared the No. 1 song on the Billboard pop chart for at least four weeks this year. Despite what I imagine must be huge financial successes for each of these songs, none of them seems to have yet entered mass consciousness, although friends tell me that another 2008 chart topper—”I Kissed a Girl”—has gone viral. Admittedly I don’t drive, so I’m never stuck in rush hour traffic with no frequency having decent reception except for the high-wattage pop station. But, even still, I contend that no recent hit has taken on the earworm status of those ubiquitous holiday melodies.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the whole holiday music canon is how bizarrely anachronistic it is. No new tune has entered that repertoire since the novelty number “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” became an unlikely yuletide favorite three decades ago. The majority of these songs, however, are from a quainter, more innocent-seeming time, untainted by postmodern irony or a disillusion with anything that reeks of consensus. Listening to them each year has become a surreal nostalgia trip.

Is it no longer possible to write a holiday song that can appeal to an extremely wide audience? Certainly there are things we celebrate and cherish about this time of year that have not been dealt with in any of the lyrics that continue to be promulgated. There are no songs that have yet to catch on about returning gifts, for example, and nothing that references Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. But tons of holiday songs get written and recorded every year, presumably in the hopes that they will eventually enter a playlist that seems even more circumscribed than that of classical music radio. It’s the one arena where aspiring pop songwriters have less of a chance of making a dent than folks who want symphony orchestras or opera companies to program their latest efforts. Last year, a publicist repeated pleaded with me to write about ““Someone is Missing at Christmas.” (It took a year, but I guess I just did.) Notwithstanding the universality of its theme, that song didn’t press my prose-generating buttons—though who knows, it might press yours. However, I admit to a genuine fondness for Dwight Yoakam’s “Santa Can’t Stay,” released in 1997. I can’t think of any other song that deals with the charged emotions resulting from interacting with exes for the sake of children on the holidays, which is something that people rarely talked about in previous generations when all of those popular Christmas lyrics were penned.

But regardless of whether any of the new material catches on, there’s actually a whole cottage industry surrounding holiday-themed albums which cuts across the walls that generally divide musical genres in the marketplace. Even classical types get in on the act—Yo-Yo Ma just released one. A friend of mine is an avid collector of such fare. He’s been so persuasive about why he does so that over the years I’ve occasionally acquired a few. The best cure I know for the omnipresent sonic chestnut is putting on either Jimmy Martin’s “Daddy Will Santa Claus Ever Have To Die,” James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” or the two volumes of Willie Colón’s Asalto Navideño. I’m sure that none of these will ever be in regular rotation on most people’s playlists and perhaps that’s their ultimate attraction. But as people my age and younger become the majority of music listeners and consumers, might there be a day when tunes like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Silver Bells” become equally exotic? And if not, why? And what would it take to write something now that people will still want to hear every year a generation from now?

13 thoughts on “Searching for a Gift That Keeps on Giving

  1. mollys

    “>a parody and Rihanna drops by to add some vocals, I suspect a huge portion of car-driving, mall-shopping America is going to be able to hum the tunes back to you. If you missed Step Up 2 the Streets, I can’t say I blame you or anything, but can you argue that “I Kissed a Girl” has not entered mass consciousness when you look at the numbers? Now ask again in a few years and all bets are off. But that said, it will probably be decades before I can read the words “You can stand under my umber-ella, ella, ella,” without the song smacking my brain with the force of an oncoming Buick.

    Reply
  2. maestro58

    Two songs stand out in my mind that should enter the canon and be covered ad nausem…

    All I Want for Christmas is You as recorded by Mariah Carey

    a wonderful homage to the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, this song needs no help in remaining popular.

    Are You Burning Little Candle Written and recorded by Jane Siberry

    Truely a wonderful fusion of christmas carol and pop styling. The best version of the song is on the album Count Your Blessings from Alert Records in Canada. I hope it is still in print. This is a gem that needs to be better known.

    Reply
  3. MarcMusic

    It may not be as catchy as “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” but this has a nice contemporary feel to it (sung to the main theme of Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 1):

    “A Foreclosed Christmas”
    By Marc Shulgold
    (Soon-to-be-former music writer
    Rocky Mountain News)

    The mortgage payment’s high
    I’ll soon be out of work.
    I sit at home and cry,
    I’m such a stupid jerk.

    The kids won’t get a thing this year,
    It pains me so to say.
    I tell them as I brush aside a tear,
    There’ll be no gifts on Christmas Day.

    (CHORUS:)
    It’s a foreclosed Christmas for us
    No joy, no fun, no hope.
    No money for our lender,
    We’re out of legal tender.
    Our lives are on a slipp’ry slope.
    Marie and I held to a dream
    That died in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
    If I should rob a liquor store
    And Marie becomes a high-priced whore
    We just might be OK.
    But now our assets frozed,
    Our home will be foreclosed
    So we’ll just torch our house on Christmas Day.

    (FADE OUT:)
    Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella
    Bring a torch, come swiftly and run…

    Reply
  4. Frank J. Oteri

    I’ve been enjoying the additional playlist suggestions people have been posting here. And others keep emailing me stuff. Even before I wrote the above rant, I’d been repeatedly sent links to Elizabeth and The Catapult’s song “Christmas with the Jews.”

    But regretfully, my argument still stands. Not even the Adam Sandler song that Josephine Chang shared a video of above has taken on iconic holiday status, as far as I can tell. Perhaps some of these newer songs will in the coming years, but the 30 year hiatus for new material entering this canon does not bode well for such aspirations. And even the youngest song in the canon, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” is more of a curiosity than a universally-covered holiday standard. By holiday music standards, even songs from the 1960s and ’70s are newbies.

    I personally think many recent holiday songs are wonderful. I mentioned my admiration for Dwight Yoakum’s “Santa Can’t Stay.” I forgot to acknowledge Brian Wilson’s 1964 (yes, that’s recent in this context) “Santa’s Beard,” which features some great modulations and a true-to-life lyric about a child’s disappointment upon discovering that a department store Santa Claus was an impersonator. Such a song seems like something that tons of people could relate to and yet how many versions of it are out there besides the one on The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album? I recently chanced upon what I thought was a cover of it by They Might Be Giants, but it turned out to be a completely different song.

    Despite the seeming universality of the themes of some contemporary holiday songs, it might very well be that the disillusionment that these songs speak to is somehow at cross purposes with what people want to listen to this time of year, or at least what radio programmers and those who determine what music gets played in shopping malls think people want to listen to. Just as in the classical music world, it sometimes feels easier to trust the tried and true rather than take a risk.

    Although Garret P. Vreeland, on his very nice link to this thread on his blog Dangerous Meta, reminded me of Paul McCartney’s 1979 song “Wonderful Christmas Time.” While I’m by no means suggesting that that song is risk-taking, as soon as I read Vreeland’s text I immediately heard the tune in my head. Does that make the song canonic? It is in fact more recent than Grandma’s traffic accident, but only by a year. Next year, it too turns 30.

    Reply
  5. philmusic

    a flesh eating zombie’s x-mass


    Moonlight and x-mass
    fulfills my desire

    you ring the bells

    while I feast on the choir
    We hang up the stockings with the
    feet still within
    thats when our flesh eating zombie’s merry x-mass begins

    Us flesh eating zombie’s we have no remorse
    we’re flesh eating zombie’s you knew that of course

    If we can’t find humans then well eat your horse.

    Or even a spouse from a messy divorce

    We head to the shopping mall just after dark
    and gnaw on the pedestrians just for a lark
    we hope that the sharp shooters will miss their mark
    Then we chortle with glee as our meals try to escape by climbing the big x-mass tree!

    Moonlight and x-mass

    fulfills my desire

    you ring the bells

    while I feast on the choir

    We hang up the stockings with the
    feet still within

    thats when our flesh eating zombie’s merry x-mass begins

    Phil Fried, Copyright 2008 all rights reserved

    Reply
  6. mdwcomposer

    My conductor friend (and CEO of Mallard Leisure Systems) George Thompson put these seasonal selections together some years ago. They’ve been on my regular rotation for years. Perhaps they should be considered for wider distribution.

    Featuring some of the finest waterfowl vocalists

        — Mark Winges

    Reply
  7. Ryan Manchester

    I’m currently taking some time off of school before doing the whole grad school thing. That being said, I’m working in a shopping mall in Honolulu and keep noticing the songs about females desiring Santa himself for Christmas this year. From the seemingly innocent “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa” to the more provocative “Santa, Baby,” to a new (to me) song I can’t recall the title, suggesting that Santa needs to stay a little later than usual for a special surprise.
    “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa” has entered the holiday music canon and songs of this type keep going further. Issues that are sexual in nature don’t bother me, but have we become such a sexually repressed nation that we feel the need to fantasize about an old, married hermit whose business ethics as an employer are questionable? Sorry about the long post, but I find that these types of songs may just enter the canon and that is ridiculous (in a very humorous way)!

    Reply
  8. JHC

    and don’t forget
    “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, 1984, covered not so long ago by Barenaked Ladies.

    Reply
  9. mollys

    ” TARGET=”_blank”>all-time favorite xmas tune. It’s corny, but not the way classics of the 1940s are. It was a Billboard topper in 1980, however, so it doesn’t beat out any of the chronology contests mentioned here.

    Happy Holidays, everyone!

    Reply

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