Can Christmas Music Ever Be Cool? The Real Reason Dylan Made the Critics Squirm

It’s time to discuss a topic more divisive than religion, more inflammatory than right versus left or the 99% versus the 1%. A topic that will either make your eyes twinkle or your blood boil.

Christmas music.

There are two distinct camps when it comes to this subject: the lovers and the haters, and never the twain shall meet. The hipsters and aficionados who love to hate Christmas music deride its sentimentality, kitschiness, and commercialism. And the Christmas music lovers (the ones who put the first Christmas carol on the stereo before the Thanksgiving leftovers have been safely secured in the fridge) accuse the haters of being scrooges–no fun and too sophisticated for their own good.

The case of Bob Dylan wonderfully exemplifies this musical rift. In 2009 when Dylan announced that he would be releasing a Christmas album with the alarming title Christmas in the Heart, nervous critics panicked and attempted to cover for their hero’s lack of judgment by explaining that Dylan’s holiday album was “ironic.”

But Dylan didn’t cooperate. He disputed the claim, saying although he is Jewish, the songs were part of his Minnesota childhood. “These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs,” he told Bill Flanagan. “You have to play them straight…Critics like that are on the outside looking in. They are definitely not fans or the audience that I play to. They would have no gut level understanding of me and my work, what I can and can’t do — the scope of it all. Even at this point in time they still don’t know what to make of me.”

Dylan simply brushed off the musical establishment’s bafflement and proceeded to donate all of the profits from his best-selling album to charity.

Bob Dylan understood something that many of his critics didn’t. He understood that all music is nostalgic. Whenever we hear a song, it is forever tied to a specific time and place in our lives. From that point forward, whenever we hear that song again, we evoke that past experience, while simultaneously adding another layer of association.

Music always contains these layers of memory. For Dylan, Christmas music was closely linked to his Minnesota childhood. Instead of ignoring or dismissing this part of his past, he chose to embrace it instead. In many ways, Dylan’s sincerity for this project was a radical act. It was unexpected and, for some critics, not in keeping with his image as a cutting-edge, creative artist.

Music’s close connection with memory is one of the reasons it is so tied to personal taste. This is true of Christmas music in particular. Songs like Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” or Perry Como’s “There’s No Place Like Home (For the Holidays)” are steeped in memories of Christmases past, both good and bad.

Is it any wonder the holidays are stressful? While we might dream of sitting around the fire with our loved ones, dressed in our hand-knit Christmas sweaters and sipping eggnog, this isn’t reality. Comparing our lives to a Christmas song or a dreamy album cover is a sure-fire way to make yourself miserable.

Musical taste taps into some of our deepest ideas about personal identity, about where we come from, and where we want to go. It can be a badge of belonging or exclusion, or even a way of gaining prestige. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues, taste is never disinterested. Our judgments are a form of social currency that place us within a certain social class or community.

Dance parties and holiday gatherings are ripe environments for these musical divisions to play out in dramatic fashion. As long as Aretha Franklin or The Talking Heads are playing, most people are happy, but the minute you break out the ABBA, Madonna, Gene Autry, or any other artist with a high campiness factor, the grumbles will begin. You can actually feel the wave of condescension as the hardcore hipsters and tastemakers migrate to the edges of the room in protest.

But is it really the music we’re arguing over, or is it our own ideas about who we are (or who we were as our younger selves) and who others should be? There are many reasons to like or disdain a certain piece of music, and few of them have to do with quality. Our own personal baggage drives the bus of taste more than we’d like to admit.

Personally, I don’t mind a few cornball standards at the holidays. I could live without the 24/7 Christmas music barrage when I’m shopping for toilet paper at the local CVS. And those songs about grandmother getting run over by a reindeer and the Christmas donkey? Do I even have to say it?

Here are a few of my own personal holiday music favorites. Granted, not all of these albums are strictly “Christmas” music. I only know that listening to these records reminds me of decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies with my mother, and my grandfather’s annual Christmas ritual–grinding the family’s only knife down to a nub on the electric knife sharpener in preparation for the big turkey carving.
 

 

Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria” RV 588 and RV 589. Vivaldi’s “Gloria” has grown in popularity in recent years and for good reason. The opening movement’s joyous chorus is the perfect music for dark, winter days. There are no samples of this album available online, but this movie excerpt by filmmaker Philippe Béziat will give you some sense of Ronaldo Alessandrini’s conducting style. This is a particularly fast version of “Gloria,” but it works. In this clip Alessandrini conducts Concerto Italiano as they perform the opening chorus from Vivaldi’s “Gloria” in the beautiful auditorium at the Church of Crema in Italy. (Click on album cover for more information)
 

Excerpt © Arte France / France Télévisions / Camera Lucida / Naïve / Classica TV

 

 

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio Sure, it’s nostalgic. Vince Guaraldi’s tunes conjure memories of poor Charlie Brown, ice skating, that funny Peanuts dance, and that measly Christmas tree. But the music is pretty fantastic too. (Click on album cover to preview in iTunes)
 

 
 

 

 

Through the Bitter Frost and Snow by Susan McKeown and Lindsey Horner I didn’t realize I would miss Susan McKeown’s captivating voice and Lindsey Horner’s light, jazzy bass until this album mysteriously disappeared during a move. I found that I couldn’t live without this stark, haunting album, so I went out and bought it a second time. Through the Bitter Frost and Snow is brimming with quiet acoustic songs that pay homage to winter. I doubt you’ll find a better rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” anywhere.

 

 
 

 

 

Christmas Mass in Rome by the Gabrieli Consort and Players The human voice remains one of my favorite instruments, and as this recording proves, the voice is all you need to produce beautiful, compelling music. This version of Palestrina’s Mass is breathtaking. You don’t have to be religious or Catholic to appreciate the moving choral work of early composers like Josquin and Palestrina. Once, I was playing this album while placing an online Christmas order over the telephone. “Where are you?” the customer service rep asked. “It sounds magical.” (Click on album cover for more information.)

Here is a video of the Gabrieli Consort & Players performing the opening piece from the album–“Motet: Præter rerum seriem” by Josquin Desprez.
 

 
 

 

 

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald This Ella Fitzgerald classic, which was originally released by Verve in 1960, remains one of the swing-ingest, sexiest Christmas albums around. “Sleigh Ride” will make you dance, and “What are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” will break your heart. (Click on album cover to preview in iTunes.)
 


 

So what are own guilty Christmas-music pleasures? Which holiday albums do you play this time of year, which ones do you avoid, and why? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the “Comments” section below or on the Gwarlingo Facebook page.

 

By | 2016-11-11T21:53:42+00:00 12.01.11|Sounds|4 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

4 Comments

  1. Kathleen December 8, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Hi Michelle,
    What a great post! I love Christmas music. Although not my favorite, The Carpenters Christmas songs bring back so many memories. I remember being 11 or 12 when she died. I grew up with my parents playing The Carpenters christmas albums, especially the one with santa painting their portrait. She sang the Christmas ballads/songs with such precision and beauty. The Christmas after she died my mom was playing that album and she told me how Karen Carpenter died. I had never heard of starving yourself to death and I spent a lot of time trying to make the connection between such a lovely voice and extreme self torture. I was just going into my teenage years and starting to obsess about my own body. This was before the Internet! All I had were Carpenter album covers and liner notes but I obsessed over Karen Carpenter for a long time. I started to notice how thin she actually looked on those covers. Why hadn’t I noticed before? Every Christmas the Carpenters return to mainstream radio/Christmas playlists. I still listen for clues almost 30 years later. She has been telling me to “have myself a merry little Christmas” almost my entire life.

  2. Jeffrey Gross December 8, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Here’s what floats my Xmas boat (Note the very harsh “false relation” at exactly 2:34)…

    In a modern vein of interpreting the past, I like Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”…

    • Michelle Aldredge December 8, 2011 at 7:04 pm

      Thank you for sharing these clips, Jeffrey. Because of you, I learned something new today. “False relation”–“a type of dissonance that sometimes occurs in classical polyphonic music, most commonly in vocal music of the Renaissance. The term describes 1) a “chromatic contradiction” between two notes sounding simultaneously, (or in close proximity), in two different voices or parts or 2) in music written before 1600, the occurrence of a tritone between two notes of adjacent chords.”

  3. Michelle Aldredge December 8, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Jazz artist and composer Diane Moser wrote in and recommended the new Geri Allen album “A Child Is Born.”

    Another reader recommends Songs of Joy and Peace: Yo Yo Ma and Friends.

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