Some Christmas songs are better left unsung.
Some Christmas songs are better left unsung. iStock
This time of year, I turn into some kind of zombie, controlled at all times/all places by a pervasive force called Christmas music.
Try as one might, there is no escaping it. The jingly songs and saccharine carols are everywhere: grocery stores, shopping malls, doctors' offices, TV, radio, Web sites, restaurants, airplanes and … IN MY BRAIN.
You might agree, it can be exasperating. Especially when that one song you simply can't bear pops up again for what seems like the gazillionth time. Then it bores into your noggin, like a parasite, asphyxiating perfectly good brain cells, if only temporarily, until the next treacly tune comes knocking.
Don't get me wrong. I'm no Grinch. I've decorated the house already.
But, since Christmas is the season for gifts, we're giving you a chance to get it off your chest, and tell us the Christmas song you loathe the most. Which one lingers, like a foul smell, or torments you with its candy-coated refrain. Leave your top stinkers in the comments section.
And now we'll get down to specifics. My partner in humbugness, Ashalen Sims and I get the snowball rolling with a conversation about our own least favorite Christmas tunes, and a couple we actually like.
Tom Huizenga: Ashalen, I know you are a singer, and you've been a chorister, so I suppose you've had to sing your share of Christmas songs over the years.
Ashalen Sims: Too true. I've performed in more Christmas concerts than I've celebrated Christmases. But I love choral music. Four-part a cappella music gets me into the holiday spirit much faster than some of the over-dramatized, over-orchestrated things I hear in department stores.
TH: Such as?
AS: Well, the one that really reduces me to slapping my radio in a desperate search for the off button is "Do They Know It’s Christmas?" by Band Aid. I can’t believe that song was the highest-selling U.K. single for thirteen years. It was originally written to draw attention to the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, so you would think it would be outdated by now, but no. It's still with us, each and every Christmas.
TH: Well, the initial intentions were good, right? But then there’s the actual song. What is it about this tune which pushes it to the top of your checklist of crummy Christmas songs?
AS: First of all, the group Band Aid is essentially a hodgepodge of popular British and Irish artists like Bono, Sting and George Michael, to name a few. All of the big names sing short solo lines — which might be why the song’s structure is so loose and rambling. It's four-and-a-half minutes long, but more than a quarter of that sounds like an introduction. Next comes what might be a chorus. But instead of going to a verse afterward, it shifts straight to some sort of bridge. Then everyone sings "feed the world" several times, and they fade out — leaving me with the feeling that the song ended before it even got started. That’s a few strikes against it, even without taking the lyrics into account.
TH: Yes, I just pulled it up on YouTube, and it is annoying. These star-riddled, cast-of-thousands relief songs usually end up getting on my nerves because they make me feel guilty. Guilty for hating a song that will purportedly help the needy. And guilty, in this case, for coming off as a scrooge during the Christmas season.
AS: Maybe this song raised money for the people affected by the famine in Ethiopia, but it didn’t help their image much. The lyrics are full of contradictions and statements that simply aren't true. You might notice that Ethiopia is never mentioned in the song. That’s because songwriter Bob Geldof decided to branch out and write about the entire African continent as if it were a single homogenous country. He calls it a place where "nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow." That confuses me because last time I was in Africa, I visited the rainforest and plenty of things were growing. And as for rivers: how about the Nile? The title of the song is perplexing, too: "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Africa was colonized exclusively by countries that celebrate Christmas — so my answer to that question is, yes, they indeed do know it’s Christmas. Perhaps it would have been better if the likes of Bono, Sting, and George Michael had just donated from their own personal coffers instead of making the recording.
But what about you? Which song sends you running for the department store exit?
TH: I’m sorry, but the classic "Little Drummer Boy" just gets under my skin and festers. And again, it’s a double whammy of words and music that really bugs me. I think the problem dates back to my childhood. That one Christmas when my cousin Joey sang the song in front of everyone and got all the attention — not only for the rest of the night, but for many following Christmases when everyone kept recalling the year when "Joey sang 'Little Drummer Boy' so well."
AS: Sounds like you’ve held onto that memory for a long time. Besides the emotional scarring, though, what is it about the words and music that push your buttons? I’ve always been disturbed by the fact that even though the song is from the perspective of a little boy, its always recorded by grown men with abnormally low voices.
TH: True, and my least favorite version comes from none other than Johnny Cash (although the David Bowie-Bing Crosby duet is a close second). As far as the music goes, the mindless rhythm is not only unrelenting, but also makes for an unsavory comparison to Ravel’s Bolero. Plus, the "pah rum pum pum pums," especially when sung by a cheesy choir, as in the Cash version, are for me the musical equivalent to waterboarding. And yes, the words. They're about a poor, little boy who can’t afford a gift for the baby Jesus; he can only offer a percussion solo on his drum, while — and I quote from the lyrics — "The ox and lamb kept time." Right. A veritable jam session at the manger. It’s all just wrong.
Anyway, just so we're not accused of being complete Grinches, I think we should close by doing a complete 180 and note a couple of our favorite songs and carols. You mentioned something earlier about four-part a cappella harmony getting you in the holiday spirit?
AS: Yes! One song that has largely escaped commercialization is the traditional German carol "Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming." It’s the perfect thing to listen to on those cold, clear, quiet winter nights when the family is gathered around the fireplace (or space heater, depending on your arrangements). What about you?
TH: My Christmas favorites are few, but I do sincerely love Mahalia Jackson’s version of "O Holy Night." My parents had the LP back in the day. I eventually "borrowed" it permanently from them. Another I never tire of is "In the Bleak Midwinter." It’s evocative and slightly wistful and particularly effective when sung by a good British choir.
OK, lest we forget about the true meaning of this discussion, we'll remind you, please tell us about your least favorite Christmas songs in the comments section. And, by the way, happy holidays!