Praying for a Silent Night: Rage against the Christmas Music Machine

This article (or something resembling it – could not resist the urge to tweak) first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 20 December 2011 under the heading “Praying for a real silent night this Christmas“, and later here under “Raging Against the Christmas Music Machine“.

I was reminded of it by the news, on Twitter, yesterday that R. Kelly has signalled his intention to make an album of “Love-Making” Holiday Music for the 2014 Festive Season. Working title: “12 Nights of Christmas”, of course. I cannot imagine the toe-curling horror of this project, particularly when ’12 Nights’ falls into the hands of misanthropic retail managers. Apparently R says “But I don’t believe in just putting out a Christmas album just to sell records”. Now, I would have thought that was the only possible reason.

I’m heading overseas with the family to escape the usual Christmas horror this year. But I today I noticed many hypertensive drivers queueing in 34 degree heat to get into shopping centres where they can listen to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra sing about snow, and reindeer and other shit that doesn’t really work here in the Southern Hemisphere. I thought it time to republish my fulmination against Christmas Music. If it reaches one receptive soul, I’ll consider my work done. You can thank me later.

Boney M. Who grew very wealthy from inflicting serious shopping-mall related damage.

Thanks to the sentimental Charles Dickens and the fabulous Dr Seuss, we have words in English for those who dare to question any facet of the Christmas spirit: Scrooges and Grinches. Childish name-calling seems the only defence against those of us who dodge hall-decking and dissent from artificial Yuletide cheer.

Well, this year I’m reclaiming those rights. Consider me Professor Scrooge McGrinch.

There is plenty to loathe about Christmas; from the tedious rounds of workplace parties, to the obscene garbage we buy as gifts, to the cynical attempts by Christians to hijack the whole fiesta for their own religious ends. (And I’m not just talking about Sarah Palin’s imaginary ‘War on Christmas’).

I love Christmas lights, and my house has been seen from the International Space Station. I’m happy to put up with greedy, materialistic kids, and with months of family intrigue over whether we are going full-turkey or cold-seafood this year (inevitably, despite the near paralysing suspense, it always ends up being a bit of both). I even laugh when discount warehouse staff intrude into traffic, like Johannesburg hijackers, offering a seven-metre inflatable Santa for $29.95. But one feature of Christmas automatically induces a month-long migraine: the music.

Once, when I was 18, I took a trip on Vancouver’s ”Carols Boat”, a two-hour-long harbour trip that cemented two rules by which I have since lived: never attend a social occasion on a boat (you can’t get off), and never go carolling. I survived because the wintry beauty of Vancouver’s light-bedecked mansions more than compensated for the carols rasping through the boat’s speakers. The carolers on my boat lost conviction after about 15 minutes.

I have met people who queue for more than four hours to sit their children on Santa’s knee. I know others who can eat a meal containing 11 different meats without expiring. But I have yet to meet anybody who can fool me that they like to shop to a soundtrack of Christmassy music.

So what inspires store management to infinitely rotate mediocre Christmas recordings in their stores, inflicting them like second-hand cigarette smoke on loyal customers? If December retail figures are as gloomy as we are led to believe, then why not ditch the Christmas music? Or is the idea to disorient and confuse the customer so much that they make injudicious purchases just to escape?

If retail managers play the dealers in this nativity scam, they couldn’t do so without their manufacturers: musicians. Forget Piltdown Man, the Hitler Diaries or Bernie Madoff, the biggest scam in history occurred in 1981 when Boney M released Christmas Album. The first single Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord sold more than a million copies in Britain and claimed the dubious title of Christmas No.1. As the rest of the world woke up and furtively slipped their Boney M albums into their neighbours’ trash, the band remained enormously popular in South Africa, where I grew up. The album earned a special rerelease there in 1984, when it was rotated so heavily that almost three decades later the syllables ”parum-pum-pum-pum” can induce me to curl up foetus-like.

According to the American psychiatrist Robert Jesse Stoller, ”kitsch is the corpse left when art loses its anger”. The recording world is certainly littered with the corpses of great careers, brought undone by the greed that reduces Christmas to kitsch. Nothing, bar reality television, embodies the loss of anger and the death of art more than the voyeuristic British obsession with the song that tops their pop charts each Christmas. Reality TV and Christmas No.1s are annually juxtaposed in the person of Simon Cowell and the no-name artists and saccharine recordings he manufactures. How I celebrated two years ago when a concerted campaign of angry, Grinchy, contrarianism elevated Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name to No.1 to thwart the Cowell machine.

Apparently a similar campaign in 2011 just failed to put Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit into top position. This year, the push is on for AC/DC’s Thunderstruck to displace the twee, the confected and the ephemerally popular.

I can’t fathom a universe in which Rage or the brothers Young might lose their anger. Kurt Cobain, by his own hand, ensured his deep well of hurt and angst never ran dry and that Nirvana never made a Christmas album. Musicians with even a shred of respect for their fans should resist the temptation to take Christmas leave of their senses (I’m talking to you, Bob Dylan). And all of us should rage against those who would inflict their second-hand carols on us in public spaces.

Every Christmas carol is doing you damage.

Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun”. Possibly the only Christmas Song that disproves my thesis.

Rob Brooks

I am an evolutionary biologist who thinks about sex for a living. Things I have thought and written about include the evolution of mate choice, the costs of being attractive, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death. Follow @Brooks_Rob on Twitter.

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