Christmas Music is Hollow and Contrived

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My favorite holiday is a week away, and I’m pumped to be in town to see my family and best friends. Unfortunately, that also means that Christmas Music™ rolled in almost a month ago like a guerrilla army and occupied the airspace of every venue of public assembly and consumption in America. Stores, shopping centers, restaurants; the casualties have been enormous. Nostalgia will lure some to defend this tragic misstep in human development as somehow childishly novel or culturally justified. However, your correspondent feels compelled to suggest that this is BS. Christmas music is a genre which is neither artistic nor expressive and exists purely because previously released Christmas music has demonstrated there’s a market for it. And that in and of itself makes it cynical and ultimately soulless. 

Kurt Cobain performing on MTV’s Unplugged, November 18, 1993.

Consider the great moments in musical history: Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” Queen at Live Aid, Hendrix’s acid-fueled “Star Spangled Banner,” Nirvana Unplugged, NWA’s arrest in Detroit for performing “Fuck the Police”, Johnny Cash playing “Folsom Prison Blues” live at San Quentin. These were moments of profound catharsis and emotional expression bursting forth from the talents and passions of the world’s most prolific musicians. And the power of these moments is in the intensity and personal exposure it took for these artists to say something central to how they felt and who they were. Now juxtapose those examples of musical transcendence with Jingle Bells

Does it really surprise anyone that Led Zepplin never put out a Christmas album? Why is it so obvious that they wouldn’t? Are we all just skeptical that Jimmy Page had any strong, transcendent feelings about Christmas, so we figure he’d avoid it as relevant musical subject matter? Your correspondent submits that the reason is because deep down we know that to put out a Christmas album is to sell out — and further, we are right to feel that way. 

Ever notice that other holidays don’t have dedicated musical genres? There is no such thing as Easter music, ‘Fourth of July music, Thanksgiving music — mostly because Christmas Music has cannibalized the month of November and begins even before the turkey hits the table. Now, we could conclude that this is because Christmas is somehow special, and thus artists relate to it more significantly. Instead, consider that the only reason Christmas music is made is because other Christmas music has been financially successful. 

This violates every instinct music audiences have developed in the last hundred years. Since the 20th century rise of mass media, musical taste has evolved to be suspicious and dismissive of gross, corporate, cash-grab music ever since Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” landed at no. 1 on the pop charts. If the music has nothing to say, has no human emotion it  tries to express, and isn’t made for passion but for profit, it stops being art and fails the sniff test of history. After all, what do we mean by ‘art?’ If the ‘art’ isn’t channeling an artist — a passion, catharsis, or otherwise authentic emotion — then it’s just a cynical pose used to farm cash by leveraging corporate marketing and manipulation. Think bro country or the next iteration of five-character boy band.

From top-left, NSYNC, One Direction, Backstreet Boys, New Kids On The Block.

Does any of this sound eerily similar to the market for Christmas music? Covers of covers of covers of the same 12 songs of Christmas cease to contain the essence of vulnerability and connection, ultimately becoming purely performative. A cynical move by an artist who is out of juice and has been approached by a manager or producer to make some quick cash by making Christmas music that will doubtlessly be cringe-inducing and likely mediocre. 

Now, my childhood and current best friend, Charlie Plunk, is the resident music writer for The Sideline Observer, and he invited me to open my mind up to some less traditional Alt-Rock music about Christmas. His suggestions included “Merry Christmas, Kiss My Ass,” by All Time Low as well as a choice song by Slipknot’s Cory Taylor “X-M@$” — both of which I found very funny and enjoyable. These songs seem to satisfy any complaint about a lack of creativity or soul. However, I feel they actually swing too far in the other direction. Most of these songs are either about distaste for Christmas or dysfunctional relationships that make Christmas miserable. I love Christmas, and my complaint isn’t that its music should be somehow less reverent to the holiday. Rather, the very idea of a weird, empty music genre about a holiday lends itself to derivative, generic, annoying content.

This year, let me observe my favorite time of year in peace. Skip the played out cliché of “Jingle Bell Rock”, Justin Bieber’s “Drummer Boy”, and Michael Bublé’s sixth Christmas album, and instead put on some works of true artistic merit that deal with joy and communion with the people you love. Christmas is a great time to be with friends and family and share love and perspective with those you care about. Don’t let music that is hollow and contrived and lacking in any true human spirit taint one of the only times set aside for togetherness, transcendence, and even a little self-expression.

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