Note: this 2012 post is obsolete, you should instead read my newer 2020 much improved version here.
Question: Why is Christmas music terrible? Answer: television. But not today’s television. We’re talking 1950’s television.
As always, xkcd is on the case. Below is the great xkcd chart showing when currently popular Christmas songs were first released. Note the bunching around the 1950’s. Just beneath this, I lined up a chart showing the rise of television ownership as a percent of US households.
I didn’t get the charts aligned exactly, so note that in 1950, 9% of households had a TV. And by 1960 87% of households had a TV.
The xkcd caption is “Every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of baby boomer’s childhoods.” Love it. Very funny. And true enough. But the reason this happens every year is not some secret plot by boomer’s to never grow up. It’s really due to the rise of a disruptive technology (TV) that started driving culture across the board during the 1950’s. Once the mass market for Christmas become locked down and enshrined by the first set of TV specials, it became impossible to dislodge those songs and images from people’s heads. A classic first mover advantage.
To illustrate, a few years ago I took a work trip to China in early December. Given the timing, I was looking forward to escaping Christmas hype for a week. But when I arrived, lo and behold, it was worse than ever. The hotel I stayed at had a massive Santa and lights display, and someone singing horrifyingly bad covers of Christmas songs each night in the hotel lobby. Of course this was a work trip, so I was staying in a hotel catering to western visitors, but even when I asked people I was working with about Christmas, they told me yes, it doesn’t mean much to the Chinese, but they play along and especially stores do Christmas displays for fun.
My point here is that Christmas songs and images got set in stone not just in the US, but across the globe. By the way, the rise of TV as a driver of culture is not a particularly original insight, so not claiming any originality in noting what’s going on here.
In my fantasy world, I wonder what would have happened if TV’s rise had coincided with the tin pan alley era in the 1930s. Cole Porter. Gershwin. Or even more far fetched, in the punk era. Though I guess punk coincided with disco, which might have been even worse than 1950’s music.
Finally, a dirty little secret. There’s some Christmas music I like. In fact I have a Christmas playlist I bust out each year. The right way to think about this is to accept the fact that Christmas music is, and always will be, from 1950’s. Don’t complain. Don’t moan. Take your medicine. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it. Have you accepted reality? Great. Now, your options are a) do your best to dodge music for a month, or b) try to find 1950’s era music you like. There’s some good stuff if you look. For example, the 1950’s saw the tail end of the Jazz era. So that includes Vince Guaraldi’s piano work in the Peanuts TV specials. Or late Ella Fitzgerald. Or maybe Phil Specter’s Motown record from 1963. If you can think of artists you like from the “formation era” of Christmas music, then you can find a few songs you can tolerate. If you hate that whole era across the board, well…..at least now you know why Christmas music is, and will always remain, terrible.