Monday, December 23, 2013

"Rumors are Flying All Over Galilee These Days" - A Word of Praise for an Unconventional Christmas Carol

Every December we seem to have the same discussion about our universal "love/hate relationship" for Christmas songs.  For every earnest list of "best Christmas songs" online, there are at least as many "Christmas songs we hate" lists as well as "Christmas songs we love to hate" lists (as well as a handful of "Christmas songs that are surprisingly tolerable!" lists).  The derision for "Christmas songs" as a genre probably stems from gross repetition - the fact that, generation after generation, we're subjected to the same dozen or so songs played every hour, on the hour, as we're stuck in line buying wrapping paper at Walgreens.  But that just begs the question of why such a small universe of songs are deemed acceptable for the holiday season.

If you ask me, the problem is that our culture has such a narrow conception of what are appropriate topics for holiday music to discuss.  Yeah, yeah, Christmas is a glorious time full of miracles, Jesus is the Son of God undoubtedly, and everyone should just get along already.  Yet, surely such a supposedly momentous, singular event as the birth of God's only son to a virgin should inspire art and music that is more compelling and sophisticated than a series of glorified campfire ditties.

As I've written before, I don't think our culture handles spiritual expression in art particularly well if it goes any deeper than "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so", and I attribute this shortcoming directly to the hijacking and commodification of spirituality by mainstream Christianity.  The problem is captured pretty well by this observation from the estimable in its breakdown of Vampire Weekend's  "Hey Ya" (itself probably the best song about religious exploration in decades):
These days, unless you have a tailored religious message, it’s very hard to be an openly religious artist — no matter how much you’re attracted to the idea.
The truth in this statement is painfully clear when you consider that nearly all "Christmas songs" fit into one of two (maybe three) categories -- painfully earnest, celebratory songs ("Joy to the World", "Hark the Herald Angel Sings") and utterly frivolous, jokey songs ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth").  A subcategory of the latter type are the sardonic or outright cynical "anti-Christmas" songs, that tend to have very little to add to the discussion beyond antagonism for its own sake.  Subtract out love songs that do little more than name-drop Christmas and Walgreens would have nothing left to play over their speakers during the holidays ... well, almost nothing, which brings me to the topic this post below the fold.