Stamatakis: Examining era-defining Christmas songs

By Nick Stamatakis

Grab a steaming cup of cocoa and some peppermint schnapps, because we’ve reached the heart of… Grab a steaming cup of cocoa and some peppermint schnapps, because we’ve reached the heart of the Christmas Season — that time of year when we all celebrate our collective lack of restraint. Don’t have enough cash to buy 17 designer dog sweaters? Add it to your credit card bill. Eaten enough to satisfy the entire nation of Cameroon? Shovel in some more figgy pudding regardless.

The season’s soundtrack, incidentally — the endless series of popular Christmas songs that assail us for hours each day — is just as overindulgent as our behavior. While normal pop music isn’t what you would call restrained — “Last Friday Night” could have just been Scrabble with friends — Christmas music allows us to reject the very real expressive limitations of normal pop music.

What do musicians do when their Christmas song doesn’t pop with enough energy? Add some obnoxious sleigh bells and “oohs” and “ahhs” that listeners would mock during any other month. Not emotional enough? Cue the schmaltzy strings and key changes. Most importantly, not high-minded enough? Add some allusions to world peace, or better yet, a children’s choir, and watch normally very reasonable humans find very unreasonable sentimentalism completely acceptable.

These conventions don’t actually anger me at all — it’s refreshing to experience some popular art form that’s not obsessed with itself. Furthermore, because Christmas music is by itsvery nature canonical — we hear and expect to hear the same music for many years — listening to it gives us a chance to undertake some serious cultural self-reflection.

We’re surrounded by songs that remind us how we’ve changed since the ’40s and ’50s, the Golden Age of Christmas music. We can see a version of ourselves that wasn’t concerned with overindulgence. In some ways, this is one of the most authentic ways to experience the past.

Here, then, is an examination of the most culturally defining Christmas songs of the past four decades, and some explanations of what they say:

1970s — “War is Over” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Given free reign, Lennon and Ono decided to be repetitious in the interest of world peace: They took the most pervasive cultural idea and augmented it by adding a haunting children’s chorus repeating the same four notes to the words “war is over.” With this, and the modulations’ constantly heightened emotion, the song underscores how dramatized 1970s music was — ever hear “Cat’s in the Cradle”?

1980s — “Feed the World” by Band Aid

Soviet-era black-and-white contrasts are painfully pronounced when Bono sings this song’s famous line, “Tonight thank God it’s them / instead of you,” expressing his gratefulness that he wasn’t one of those people starving in Africa. The over-the-top message — that a bunch of superstars are here to save the world from darkness — is also consistent with the re-emergence of nationalism and the “go get ’em” attitude in Ronald Reagan’s U.S. and Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain.

1990s — “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey and “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” by ’N Sync

Everybody was obviously very happy when the Cold War — and virtually any other overarching conflict — ended. Even the economy was great. It’s no wonder, then, that the era’s two biggest Christmas songs doubled down on the happiness that everybody was feeling. Mariah Carey’s song — with its instrumentation and energy reminiscent of “Greased Lightning” — talks about how there is literally nothing she needs or wants (except your love, of course). And all ’N Sync could find to talk about is a list of things associated with Christmas — even the title is meaningless.

2000s — “The Christmas Shoes” by Newsong

The culturally defining nature of this song wasn’t obvious until the recession began. Most of the decade was generally OK, and on the surface actually pleasant, just like this song. The latter covered all the bases, gaining popularity slowly by providing a heartwarming, morally charged story involving children (win), religion (bigger win) and shopping (biggest win).

But if you actually scrutinize the track, it kind of stinks — just like the decade. Musically, the electronic strings and keyboards have the authenticity of Weather Channel music, and structurally the story rather depressingly suggests the boy’s father sent his child into the store knowing he didn’t have enough money. Also, the boy’s determination to spend money on unused shoes rather than something that would help his family, like food, is quite analogous to how the country spent its money: on huge homes of shoddy construction that nobody could afford and faux granite counter tops.

So far this decade, the biggest new Christmas album has been Justin Bieber’s “Under the Mistletoe.” Like I said, grab some cocoa and schnapps.

Contact Nick at [email protected]