Sing Like You Mean It

What with it being late December and all, I’ve been listening to a lot of Christmas music lately. And one thing I’ve decided is that I really need to separate my collection into “Christmas music (straight)” and “Christmas music (ironic)”. It hurts my brain when I put the MP3 player on shuffle and it goes from Bing Crosby’s Silver Bells to William Hung’s version.

Another thing is that I need to purge my collection of such schmalzy glurge as Christmas at the Dentist’s and Stuck in an Elevator for Christmas.

Which brings me to my main point: that playing or singing like you mean it counts for a lot. I just listened to Etta Jones’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I can’t think of a single objective criterion (tempo, syncopation, inflection, etc.) by which it should be excluded from An Uncool Square’s Treasury of Easy-Listening Christmas Favorites, but I like it. There’s something I can’t define, but basically she sings like she means it, like it gives her joy to be singing this song, rather than singing like “hey, it’s a gig.” (And yes, I hear a lot of the same thing in gospel music, which is why it goes on my list of genres that I respect, even if I don’t enjoy the music itself.)

Mannheim Steamroller could easily have been a novelty act: A Synthpop Christmas. But I think there’s a joy that comes through in his playing, a feeling that he actually likes those songs, and wanted to do them justice in his own style. Ditto Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, though Dean Martin could get a bit too schmalzy for me.

Of course, singing like you mean it isn’t everything. Wing is quite earnest, as is William Hung. But that doesn’t mean I want to listen to more of them than I absolutely have to.

I completely understand people who hate shopping in December because all the malls are playing the same twelve goddamned songs for a solid month. I too put on my iPod to drown out the Extruded Music Product. But if you look, you can find performances of those same twelve songs (and a lot more) that actually sound good. To a large extent, I think it’s simply because the musicians have genuine love for the material.

(PS: for the people who are tired of hearing the same twelve songs over and over, every year I make it a point to listen to Navidades Radioactivas, a Spanish punk Christmas compilation. It’s definitely… different.)

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4 Responses to Sing Like You Mean It

  1. Eamon Knight says:

    I spent about half an hour in my doctor’s waiting room the other day (not sick; just getting my H1N1 shot). They had a radio tuned to some station playing continuous horrible covers of Christmas music. Boy was I glad to get out of there.

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  2. Fez says:

    My first job as a teenager was working in a department store. From the end of November to December the store was filled with the worst of Muzac-licensed holiday tunes, all piped in from corporate headquarters such that if instantaneous teleportation was possible from store to store you wouldn’t have to miss a beat.

    Although the most cringe-worthy abomination I recall hearing was outside of the holiday season – an orchestral version of Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With The Devil”.

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  3. arensb says:

    Eamon Knight:
    I was just at my dentist’s the other day. I don’t think they had music in the waiting room (I didn’t have to wait), but in the oral hygenist’s room, they had what Peter Schickele called “Music so lite you can barely stay awake”. And yes, mangling all the Christmas standards.

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  4. arensb says:

    Fez:
    I still cringe when I remember going to the supermarket and hearing the Muzak version of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).

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