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So Many Bad Christmas Songs

Like presidential politics, the impending fiscal cliff and methods of hanging a roll of toilet paper, the music of the December holidays tends to inspire pretty strong feelings in people.

Usually exempt from people’s ire are selections from classic crooners like Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, even if they do receive heavy rotation this time of year. What really seems to get people going, aside from hearing Christmas music as they’re shopping for Halloween costumes, is the amount of truly horrendous holiday music that’s out there. You know the kind: the style-over-substance renditions of classics like O Holy Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing that are typically performed by American Idol rejects, polished with a gratuitous dash of Auto-Tune and devoid of their original meaning.

I don’t think you can truly comprehend how much bad holiday music exists unless: 1) you listen to Portland, Maine’s WHOM-FM, which plays it ad nauseum between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or 2) you work in retail during the holiday season, as I did when I was a high school junior in the final months of 2002.

The red smock I wore as a sales associate at Spicer’s 5 & 10 in the St. Louis suburb of Ladue is long gone, but memories of the loop of holiday pablum played over the store’s speakers remain. Part of the problem was that I came from a household where Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song LP was the holiday soundtrack. Hearing Cole’s buttery voice accompanied by an orchestra, year after year, gave me very high expectations for how Christmas music should sound.

The holiday selections played at Spicer’s quickly brought me back to Earth. Auto-Tune had yet to infiltrate the record industry in the 1980s and 90s, yet Top-40 singers and their producers managed to create dreadful Christmas music without it. Bless their hearts, the musicians who recorded Do They Know It’s Christmas? — a group diverse enough to include Bono, Sting and the members of Bananarama — had the noblest intentions (proceeds benefited victims of the Ethiopian famine). But intentions alone could not save the song from inclusion in the annals of bad Christmas music past.

One member of the Do They Know It’s Christmas? chorus had already made his contribution to the Awful Christmas Music Songbook. Paul McCartney should have known better than to risk his reputation by entering the Christmas music market, and left the holiday songwriting to his estranged bandmate John Lennon, whose Happy Xmas (War is Over) remains one of the best holiday songs of the last half century. Instead, McCartney released the synthesizer-driven Wonderful Christmastime in 1979, a song I had never heard before working at Spicer’s, and whose halting synthesizer chords and banal lyrics never failed to make me grit my teeth and want to throw a temper tantrum in the penny candy aisle. I was quite alone in that reaction; royalties from Wonderful Christmastime have netted Sir Paul an estimated $15 million over the years, according to Forbes magazine.

At 17, I didn’t give a lot of thought as to what the holiday music of the future would sound like. I thought I’d been exposed to enough bad Christmas music to last me several lifetimes, and future Christmases found me grateful to be in Nat King Cole’s gentle company once more. The few occasions I’ve had to hear Christmas music created in the past decade have usually taken place when I’m shopping at a department store or flipping radio stations in the car. While there’s been plenty of holiday-themed music released in the early years of the 21st century, I doubt any of these songs will be heralded as classics in the years to come. If anything, we will probably look back with embarrassment at holiday music recorded by the cast of Glee, whose Christmas album is enough to make me nostalgic for Last Christmas by Wham!, a song I loathed in my Spicer’s days but has grown on me over time.

What’s more disheartening is that today’s musicians seem more concerned with trying to put their own spin on established standards, instead of penning their own l material. Give Michael Buble some credit: He’s the type of singer who could get away with releasing a holiday album entirely of standards, but his 2011 holiday CD boasts Cold December Night, an airy, fun and original number, as well as a nice update of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You.

It’s probably tough for a songwriter to top songs in the Christmas canon, but how can the genre evolve if they don’t at least take a stab at it?

That’s what singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen did in the mid-1990s when he wrote and recorded his landmark song Merry Christmas From the Family. Growing up in Texas, Keen found that Silent Night and other songs of the season didn’t ring true to him. Following that old adage about writing what you know, Keen tells the story of a blue- collar Lone Star Christmas, full of colorful characters like thrice-married Brother Ken and his new wife Kay “who talks all about A.A.,” a younger sister who brings her Mexican boyfriend to the party, and Fran and Rita from Harlingen (“I can’t remember how I’m kin to them”), who extinguish the family’s Christmas light display when they plug in their motorhome. If you’re tired of adult contemporary singers crooning about how magical and joyful this season is, check it out. After all, you needn’t be a Texan to appreciate a holiday spent drinking margaritas and spiked egg nog.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com.

or 603-727-3242.

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