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?