The Magazine

Dreck the Halls

A tour through the worst of Christmas music.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By MICHAEL LONG
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THERE IS ONLY ONE GOOD REASON to hate Christmas music: treacle--the cloying sentimentality, molasses emotionalism, and gooey, faux-compassion. Easter songs are silly: Peter Cottontail comes hoppin' down the bunny trail, and ladies don Easter bonnets. The New Year's song "Auld Lang Syne" has license to be sickly sweet and dumb, as it is intended to be sung drunk. And Thanksgiving and Halloween don't have any songs, unless you count those Stepford-style tunes your kids drag home from public school, celebrating diversity or mourning the mistreatment of some unsympathetic someone or other.

No, Christmas has the holiday treacle business locked up, and the most absurd and offensive Christmas song is--well, the mind reels at the possibilities. Any nominee for worst carol has to combine chestnut cliché with the tiredest of tired sentiment and pedestrian melody, with extra points given for rock-operatic arrangement, religious dissonance, misplaced gravity, and the emotional exploitation of sad children.

So, for instance, songwriter Steve Earle wins a mention, in the category of "Best Performance By An Artist in Decline," for "Christmas in Washington." Once a savvy observer of rural surroundings, Earle now attempts to evoke holiday smiles with a paean to violent radicals: The anarchist Emma Goldman, the Wobbly Joe Hill, and Malcolm X are all present in this Christmas song, tied somehow or other to Martin Luther King (who surely doesn't deserve the company).

Then, too, we have "Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed The World)" by Band-Aid, a motley collection of but-they're-big-in-Europe pop singers who recorded the song in 1984 to raise money to relieve hunger in Africa. While it was a noble sentiment, the music that Band-Aid squeezed out is indictable not only for being bad, but also because it inspired a mob of B-grade U.S. stars to foist "We Are the World" on America not long after. Band-Aid's output was off-key Euro-pop that sounds like the product of a committee, which it was, set to a wandering beat that suggests a shaggy dog loping in fits and starts across a lawn doubling as a gopher farm. The song's lyric Do they know it's Christmastime at all? ostensibly refers to famine victims in Ethiopia--a place where, if you did know it was Christmastime, you might be wise to keep it to yourself, as at least one recent news report on the condition of evangelicals there included the phrase "was hit in the face with a stone."

It is, of course, possible to be offensive with no lyrics at all. An outfit of apparently interchangeable membership called Trans-Siberian Orchestra came through with "Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24," a smashmouth medley of otherwise pretty carols. With its overwrought electric guitars, orchestral whining, and low-register piano-pounding, the emphasis is more on Sarajevo circa 1993 than Christmas Eve. The song sounds like Meatloaf and Andrew Lloyd Webber first spent a month getting crazy-high on Vicodin and then, freed by addiction from the constraints of taste, proceeded to write musical accompaniment for a nuclear holocaust.

Radio listeners inside the Beltway this year are racing for the off-switch when Maura Sullivan's "Christmas Eve in Washington" comes warbling over the air. A vehicle for charity fundraising, suggesting that music with sledgehammer emotion is at least as valuable as direct mail, "Christmas Eve in Washington" is a blizzard of cliché freezing into iceballs, such as the terrifying idea of "snowmen peeking through the windows" and sounds-good-until-you-think phrases like "peace can stand her ground." If music were judged by how many shoes it provides for orphans, the song would be an unqualified success--but it's not.

For a more direct study of orphans' (or at least orphans-to-be) securing shoes, one need listen only to NewSong's instant holiday classic "The Christmas Shoes," in which the narrator encounters a lad "dirty from head to toe" with a sack of pennies in one hand and a pair of ladies' Hush Puppies in the other: You see, mom's been sick for quite awhile / And I know these shoes would make her smile / And I want her to look beautiful / If mama meets Jesus tonight.

But Jesus has never been cast in such an embarrassing musical role as He was in the most wrong Christmas record ever, 1977's "The Little Drummer Boy," recorded by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. Crosby, the dignified father of pop-music singing, a profoundly innovative jazz vocalist, and one of the masters of pop culture in the first half of the twentieth century, was paired with Bowie, a rock performer best known for cross-dressing and hanging out with Andy Warhol.

Whoever tricked ol' Bing into that duet did more than create a bad Christmas record. He also managed to erase from the public mind one of the most influential careers in both music and pop culture, replacing it with the memory of three horrifying moments from a TV special. Bowie's scratchy, wooden tenor wanders through Crosby's peerless bass-baritone like a straight-pin floating around in a bottle of wine, just waiting to catch in someone's throat.

To trainwreck Bing Crosby's reputation while coronating his opposite, a master of style over substance--and using a Christmas carol to do it--well, that's as offensive a holiday happening as there could be. The record captures in a few moments some of the saddest offenses against Christmas, culture, and quality in general. Some holiday songs are bad, but only this one is profoundly so. It's what they play in Hell, and Satan keeps it playing all year long.

Michael Long is a director of the White House Writers Group.