Why is Christmas music so bad? The answer is television. But not today’s television. We’re haunted by evil zombie undead television from the 1950s. Let’s find out why.
Below is a great xkcd chart on when currently popular Christmas songs were first released. See how they bunch around the 1950’s? Just beneath this I made a chart showing the rise of television ownership as a percent of US households.
I didn’t get the charts aligned that well. But it’s enough to note that in 1950, 9% of US households had a TV. And by 1960, 87% of households did.
The xkcd caption is “Every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of baby boomer’s childhoods.” Perfect! Love it. But the reason this happens every year is not due to a secret conspiracy by boomers to never grow up, though of course that’s accurate. Rather, it’s a founder effect, timed to the rise of the disruptive technology of television, as it began driving US culture. Once the 1950s version of mass market Christmas become enshrined in the first TV specials, it became impossible to dislodge those particular songs and images from people’s heads. First mover advantage. Highly contingent technology founding effects like this dominate our lives and culture, there for all to see, if you just pause and pay attention.
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 out of tune and mispronounced Christmas covers each night in the lobby. This was a work trip, so I was staying at a hotel catering to western visitors. But when I asked people I worked with about Christmas in China, they said yes, it doesn’t mean much to the Chinese, but they enjoyed playing along. So many Chinese stores have Christmas displays, for fun and profit.
My point here is that Christmas songs and images got set in stone not just in the US, but across the globe. Of course the rise of TV as a driver of culture is not particularly original. But I’d say the effect of 1950s TV on the Christmas songbook remains vastly underappreciated.
In my fantasy world, I wonder what might have happened if TV’s rise coincided with the tin pan alley era from the 1930s. Cole Porter. Gershwin. Or perhaps punk. Hmmm…. Disco was big then, so that’d be awful. Forget it.
Finally, I’ll share my dirty secret. I like some Christmas music. 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 the 1950’s. Don’t complain. Don’t moan. Take your medicine. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it. Even the very few new songs which succeed in becoming Christmas canon must be written in a 1950s style. Or they get ignored. I see you Mariah Carey, doing that oh so very 1950s major to minor 7 chord shift when singing “I don’t care about the presents, underneath the Christmas tree”. All I Want for Christmas Is You is fresh. Straight outta 1994.
Have you accepted reality? Great. Here are your only two options: 1) try and dodge music for a month, or 2) find some 1950s style music you enjoy. That’s it!
There’s good stuff if you look. Remember, the 1950s was the tail end of the Jazz era. So includes Vince Guaraldi’s piano trio from the Peanuts TV specials. And late Ella Fitzgerald. Sinatra was in his Capital phase, still putting out good work. Tony Bennett thankfully made the cut. Or maybe try Phil Spector’s Motown record from 1963. Which just squeaked in before the date cutoff. Thank you Ronnie! Some other important rules: Christmas music must sound pre-Beatles, and be Leave It To Beaver TV compatible, or it’s right out. Unfortunately that means no blues or 1950s Miles Davis. But TV friendly Nat King Cole? His chestnuts are purest canon.
If there are any artists you like who were active during the 1950s formation era of Christmas standards, you can find songs you’ll tolerate. Or if you want more modern production, try artists who record songs or covers in that old timey 1950s style. Say, Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime (yes Paul can do anything). Or maybe God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan (yeah, I’m old). If you want some ideas, see my spotify Christmas playlist. To be clear, I didn’t make the Christmas songbook rules. And frankly don’t like them. I’m just blogsplaining so you don’t get arrested as you frantically attempt to find something tolerable.
If you hate that entire musical era, well…..at least now you know why Christmas music is today, and forever will be, bad.
footnote: this 2020 post is a (much improved) rewrite of my original 2012 version