Why Holiday Music Hurts So Good

Carolers beware! Music critic Christian Bordal doesn't want to hear any more Christmas songs. Bordal, of member station KCRW, explains why he thinks holiday music is so bad — but makes people feel so good.

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(Soundbite of music)

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Some people just love their Christmas music. It gets them in the holiday spirit, brings back fond memories, makes them feel all warm and merry. Well, not so, for our music critic Christian Bordal, who says there is no such thing as good Christmas music.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: It's the holiday season, also known as music purgatory.

(Soundbite of song, "Winter Wonderland")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Sleigh bells ring are you listening? In the lane snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland.

BORDAL: Christmas music, it's the quintessential musical wallpaper. You're not really supposed to listen to it. I mean if you actually listened to it over and over and over and over, you would go insane. No, it's just there to set a mood, to give the Christmas - read shopping -spirit.

(Soundbite of song, "The Christmas Song")

Mr. James Taylor (Musician): (Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

BORDAL: But if it's nothing more than seasonal elevator noise, why would so many normally self-respecting artists want to record Christmas albums? This year alone, James Taylor does his smooth, jazzy folk version; Aimee Mann has a kind of suicide singles take on the genre; Sarah McLachlan with a sweet, folk- pop thing; there's those Celtic women, big band, rockabilly, country, klezmer - Twisted Sister even thrashes the seasonal favorites with heavy metal. I kid you not.

(Soundbite of song, "Deck the Halls" by Twisted Sister)

Mr. DEE SNIDER (Singer, Twisted Sister): (Singing) Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. 'Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la- la-la-la-la-la…

BORDAL: Here's the problem in a chestnut shell: It's not possible to make good Christmas music. It can't be done - because it's not about the music, it's about what we heard when we were kids. It's about recreating, for ourselves or our own children, a certain magical ideal that involves all kinds of sloppy, lovey(ph), nostalgic feelings that the music has to convey.

(Soundbite of song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Singer): (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay…

BORDAL: Seasonal music has to say Christmas trees, and eggnog, and mistletoe. Ergo, it can't be too artistically challenging, or emotionally tough, or the least bit dissonant. I mean, in short, it can't be any of the things that actually make music worth really sitting down and listening to.

(Soundbite of song, "'Zat You Santa Clause?")

Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Musician): (Singing) Sure is dark out, ain't the slightest spark out, pardon my clacking jaws. Who's there, who is it stopping for a visit? Is 'zat you, Santa Claus?

BORDAL: All right, I'll concede there are a few good Christmas songs, maybe six or so, and every one of them is played on every Christmas album you ever heard. I mean, take "White Christmas," one of the most recorded songs of all time.

(Soundbite of song, "White Christmas")

Mr. BING CROSBY (Crooner): (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…

BORDAL: Yeah, yeah, we know. It's a perfectly nice little song. But after you've heard it 500 times in a single week, played in every conceivable style, you want to grab it off the turntable and smash it over Bing Crosby's pointy little head.

(Soundbite of song, "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow")

Mr. BRIAN SETZER (Singer, Musician): (Singing) Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we've no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

BORDAL: Full disclosure: There will be some Christmas music in my household this holiday season. I won't be listening, but there'll be a few seasonally appropriate sounds percolating in the background. I'm mostly into choirs singing traditional hymns, some nice, peaceful, instrumental fare - maybe just a little Nat King Cole, Burl Ives, Doris Day. Oh well, I've got a childhood to re-live, too.

(Soundbite of song, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing")

Ms. DORIS DAY (Singer): (Singing) Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.

BRAND: Christian Bordal comes to us from member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California. To respectfully disagree with Christian, nominate your favorite holiday song, and if our esteemed director loves it as much as you do, she'll play it on the air. Go to our Web site, npr.org. Click on the contact-us link at the top of the page and put holiday music in the subject line.

(Soundbite of song, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing")

Ms. DAY: (Singing) Joyful all ye nations…

BRAND: There's more ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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