The Tyranny of Holiday Music
The a cappella group Pentatonix.
The silver lining of pop music is its impermanence. Especially in our constantly accelerating media landscape, the ubiquity of pop is at least tempered by time: tunes barely have enough temporal real estate to drill into our ears before the next song supplants it. With so many artists clamoring for media attention, this seems to be a necessary part of the business model – a thankful respite to our ears. And yet, whether you call an urban center or rural area your home, we’re nevertheless still inundated with the same handful of songs. Songs from Kings of Leon, Daft Punk or Lady Gaga “work” in the context of the pop formula; they are indeed catchy the first several times, but when they are foisted upon us through public speakers for an entire season or year, their perpetual presence becomes noise pollution.
Public Service Announcement: Discerning listeners are advised to protect their ears by equipping a pair of noise-cancelling headphones on their person at all times, should Top 40 strike when citizens are caught unaware.
Every December, the onslaught of unwanted music seems unavoidable. Depositing a check at your local bank or gathering vegetables at the supermarket unleashes holiday aural viruses on your unwitting ears. In addition to the usual insanity of holiday parties, travel logistics, and miserable weather the end of the year brings, we also must contend with the ceaseless rotation of holiday “standards.”
An aside: This is not even mentioning the reductio ad absurdum remix effect of these jingles thanks to the internet (look no further than the “ding fries are done” video sung by a mentally challenged person, a parody of the perennial “Carol of the Bells”). Some of these songs are funny at first playing (although in the example above, at the expense of the less fortunate) but they nonetheless belie a frustration with a song that will just not go away, not as some sort of homage. Parodies are one form of flattery, but a remix such as this attempts to defile the source material by taking it out of its holiday context and into a fast food establishment with a singing Down’s Syndrome cashier. The “ding fries are done” example is a noble attempt that is ultimately unsuccessful since the original is injected back in your mind, the same five seconds looping in your brain until you find something else to supplant it instead.
Rather though, let’s turn our attentions to the sincere restructuring attempts of these enduring “classics.” This year, there is a hip hop version of “I Have a Little Dreidel” that is particularly egregious, even more so than “The Dreidel Hokey Pokey” (yes, that exists). I haven’t linked to it to preemptively give your ears relief; adventurous listeners know where to look. Efforts to modernize these ancient tunes is a noble effort, but it’s nearly impossible to make diamonds from dirt source material. Take Pentatonix, an a cappella group obsessed with creating Christmas music. They’ve released a Christmas album for three years straight, including a fresh one for this season. Is there a comfort to be found in covering tried-and-true songs (as opposed to writing their own material), or do they truly enjoy holiday music that much? The truth is that holiday music sells; so is their ouevre simply a matter of economics? Or, perhaps there is comfort in infantilization, of recalling our younger years during the holidays, when things were simpler, when as a child you had less responsibility…but many more presents. Whatever the reason, it’s working; as of this writing, Pentatonix are the 254th most listened band on Spotify (just behind artists like Florence + The Machine, who write original compositions).
Supposedly artists create new Christmas versions because they enjoy the holiday, but is creating more pop pablum really paying homage? Covering songs that are terrible to begin can but doesn’t improve them, and provides little comfort if you’re enduring winter in a part of the country that is frigid.
When covering existing holiday tunes has found an artist uninspired, several create their own. The most prevalent examples are Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” I’m willing to bet that merely reading the titles of these songs is enough to get the choruses playing in your head. McCartney’s composition, despite drawing polarizing opinions as to its quality, earns the artist between $400,000 and $600,000 each year in royalties. Such is the power of omnipresent music.
To say that “hey, it’s only music,” acknowledges inadvertent complicity in the music. It also sheds the idea that music is exempt from political agenda. In America, the predominant holiday music tradition follows its predominant religion, but the nondenominational holiday songs are just as bad. I only need mention their names – “Jingle Bells,” “Deck the Halls,” “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – to inject them into your brain.
To zoom back out of the specificity of holiday pop music to year-round pop music, it’s obvious why a gym would feature “Turn Down For What” in its rotation, but in the age of Spotify, iTunes, Pandora and Youtube, the decision to continue playing something with such ubiquity lacks a sense of adventure in favor of craving familiarity and acceptance. When Target blasts Bieber, they think it’s what everyone else wants to hear, that their choice of music is innocuous and inoffensive. How ironic that the reverse is true.
One can consider radio in one of two ways. Radio can either create a familiar listening environment, engendering comfort. Or, radio can take the listener on an exploration into the depths of the musical sea in search of pearls lurking at the bottom. Clear Channel’s conventional FM radio and the Billboard rankings that come with it represent the former; modern internet streams represent the latter. We don’t need to reject the former, but we can reject the idea that the former is where we our ears should always live. It’s our responsibility to be cognizant of both possibilities.