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.)