Monday, December 22, 2008

Pop Culture and Christmas -- 6 1/2 Short Blogs about Music and TV for the Season No One Can Agree To Disagree On Anymore.

1. My favorite Christmas song is "Joseph, Who Understood", by the New Pornographers. It's sung from the point-of-view of Joseph, the least sung about guy in the Bible, who hears the townsfolk of Galilee belittling his status as a father and husband because, to them, he's a cuckold. Joseph's response is to talk to Mary about this. He understands that "Some things are bigger/ Than we know", but still needs to know "Mary, is he mine?" It's a beautiful pop song, full of glorious choruses and harmonies, and background cadences that work both as a Greek chorus and an answer to Joseph's questions. By the end, he's singing "Mary, He is mine", which is why the title of the song is what it is. "You're Asking Me/ To Believe/ In Too Many Things" is as heartbreaking a line as ever written. "Mary, He is mine" is the determination of a father to do the right thing. Glorious. Go to iTunes and buy it now. It's a buck, for cryin' out loud.

2. After that, it's the BC Clark jingle. For those of you who have never been inside the state of Oklahoma over Christmas, BC Clark Jewelers has been around for a very long time, and is older than the state itself. At some point, the gods smiled upon the commercial songwriters of central Oklahoma, and they came up with this gem of a jingle that is almost impossible to get out of your head, once heard -- and you cannot live within the state lines without hearing the song over and over for the month of December. Then it disappears, back into the vault to be reissued next December. Never re-recorded since its original version, it sounds beautifully retro and timeless AND works fabulously as a commercial, placing the store in historical context and providing you with the information you need to go spend money there. It never gets annoying, and no matter how many people are around, they will all start singing along when it's played on the radio. You can be arrested for not doing so in some of the smaller towns in Oklahoma, as a variation of their old "sundown" laws. BC Clark Jewelers should not be confused with the Trust House Jewelers, who aren't around anymore, and who used to sponsor a lot of local late night television. This led to Godzilla movies being interrupted every 15 minutes by a picture of their French Market Mall store, and a Muzak version of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" playing as the owners displayed horrifyingly expensive, tacky as hell jewelry for you to buy. Late at night.

3. There are so many worst songs involving Christmas that I could write entry after entry without my usual sardonic glee and just display pain -- the pain of Magic 104's already horrible station going Christmas since some time in late November. There's nothing like 24-hour, constant, enforced merriment to make you Grinch out all over the place. Worst thing I've ever heard: any of the myriad versions of "Mary, Did You Know?", which is answered "Yup, she did." Didn't you read that book? Almost any Christmas song written especially for a movie made in the last ten years also falls under this umbrella, especially that piece of shit "Where Are You, Christmas?" song that Faith Hill sang in that even shittier version of How The Grinch... Ron Howard plopped on us from above. Magic 104 is a constant pain in my side. It's the station more people agreed to listen to at work, so it is played constantly. I have NPR on at my desk, but am not always there, so I get to listen to Magic 104's playlist, as selected by (in my mind, at least) their typical listener: a conservative 30-ish, low 40's-ish female secretary with three kids who thought Bon Jovi was the height of rock and roll in the 80's, but is too scared to listen to Top 40 radio now because it's all hip-hop and rap. She loved Garth Brooks at the time, and CARES about the contestants on American Idol. Think "Debbie", Frank Zappa's hypothetical teenager who is the focus of record companies' promotional departments, but grown up and almost 40, and you've got it. Magic 104: ass-kissing radio for your home or business. I also get to listen to Bill O'Reilly every day, in part because I believe in free speech and listening to those people you vehemently disagree with so you can understand where they're coming from. Also in part because the guys at work like to hear me yell back at the radio. "That's bullshit!!!" is another big Holiday tradition.

4. At one point I could recite all the lines, sing all the songs, and perform all the voices of the great Rankin/Bass classic Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Let me say this again; I could do them on command, and do so now without being asked. Many's the person who has heard me do this and looked wide-eyed at the weird person speaking like Yukon Cornelius. Rudolph is to me, and for many people my age, THE Christmas TV special. And how did this happen? Seriously? How does a stop-motion puppet show from the late 60's come to dominate every other Christmas Special around it? Is it the message, that you should accept people for who they are and understand that every person is special in some way? Is it the songs? I mean, who doesn't love the timeless beauty of "There's Always Tomorrow For Dreams To Come True"? Or the remakes of almost-blacklisted folkster Burl Ives' classics "Holly, Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold"? No, what makes Rudolph so timeless is that the special helped create a whole chunk of Christmas mythology, and inhabits its world so completely, that it's hard to imagine Christmas without an Island of Misfit Toys, or the hope that the ones we love will simply accept us as who we are. That makes Rudolph, the character, a cipher. He can represent any minority group you want, and any hero you need. He's a tough deer-of-action who is polite, caring, and flies when people like him. And Hermie may be the best gay Jewish puppet role model ever. The fact that you can buy the entire cast of the show at auction is one of the weirder realizations of my adult life.

5. The Charlie Brown Christmas Special has finally fallen victim to enforced nostalgia, for me. Now, they spread the 24 minute cartoon out to an hour, with more commercial breaks than you'd think possible in 60 minutes, and ram a few shorts in afterward to keep you watching -- and in order to fit in more commercials. The CBCS, as we hipsters call it (only me), is also the only special that really tries to downplay the festivities in favor of a discussion of the theme of Christmas. For many people, that means the Story of Jesus's birth -- and ONLY the story of Jesus's birth. For the special (and this has to be read a bit into it, as I never got high enough with Charles Schulz to ask him), the theme is the way Capitalism has destroyed the original meaning of Christmas, and has "created" a new, commercial and status-appointed meaning. Fogged up in the mist of ideology, time, and people bitching about "Lack of Tradition!" and "Tannenbaum?!" is the thing I remember most from the Story -- that Jesus's parents were willing to defy death in order to bring the child into the world. That selflessness (and let's not forget that Mary didn't really have much choice in the matter) and generosity (the two of them allowed that Jesus was their child, even though God was the father) is faintly echoed in Charlie Brown's pick of a runt-of-the-litter Christmas Tree, that he likes in spite of what everyone else says, and in spite of what everyone else thinks he should purchase. Linus eventually steps in, as he usually does, to provide some sense in those chaotic times, and simply recites a few lines from The Bible that resets everyone's bearings. Jesus, he points out, was a Gift. Be happy with the Gift. Selflessness is the reason for the season.

But the ideology gets a bit crossed here. Linus seems to be saying that the gift of Jesus is what's important to remember, that it is the meaning of Christmas. In one sense, he's right. Christians are supposed to celebrate Christmas as the birth of their Savior -- the Savior of the World, for them. But the holiday is so much more than that. For those of us who aren't Christians, it's a pause for breath, a chance to take the year as a whole and celebrate those things that make life worth living. For you, it may involve religion. For me, it's my family and friends, and the hope that people can continue to be as selfless as Jesus's parents, and do unto others, etc. The CBCS isn't quite sure how to work this all out. After his tree is rejected by his selfish compatriots, Charlie takes it to his house. He'll love it as it is, so there. He's much better than you, and is self-important enough to know it. His attempt to make the tree more palatable -- the ornament from Snoopy's prize-winning Christmas doghouse display that Mr. Brown (sounds like Mr. Shit!) puts on it -- only succeeds in hurting the tree, and he runs off, screaming. His "friends", who have followed after him, possibly to see if he'll commit suicide, give the tree their "love", which for Linus is the gift of his security blanket, and for the rest, the moving of ALL of Snoopy's decorations onto the tree, thus making it as pretty as all the others BECAUSE THEY'VE MADE IT THAT WAY. Far from being an acceptance of the tree as it is, the Peanuts cast remakes the tree in their own image, and it is accepted. Hell, they even serenade Charlie Brown as some sort of "keeper of the flame", when Linus is the one who got everyone to shut up for a minute and think about the "meaning" of Christmas. The blanket around the tree should be enough, but it isn't for Shermy and the rest. Charlie bought the tree, and they made it less individualistic, just so he and it would fit in better. At the end, it just looks like every other over-decorated tree in the world, and not "itself" anymore. Rah frickin' rah. As dark as Peanuts got, I think this point might actually be what Charles Schulz is trying to get at, but, again, I never got high enough with him to ask. Dolly Madison cakes for all!

Next up, a Marxist revaluation of the Cold and Heat Misers.

6. Without doubt the saddest AND sappiest Christmas song is "Same Old Lang Syne", by schlockmeister Dan Fogelberg, he who told us about his penis size years before doing so was hip: "Longer". (See! I told you there would be dick jokes!) This 5 minute opus about a rock star who meets an old high school girlfriend in the grocery store is not the set up for Time Chasers, but the saddest of all Xmas songs: the reunion that turns into the Big Suck. Filled with little details about frozen food and drinking in the car, the song represents nostalgia past, present, and future in a nice Christmas Carol-ly sort of way: the Future, in that the song is about the inability to recreate the past, either in action or feeling, so it's best to look forward; the Present, in that the damned thing is played on Magic 104 every hour, and because I am about the age of the main character now, so, watch out, nostalgia fans!!; and the Past, which takes some back story.

We used to have dances in high school, back in the day when I danced not to attract the opposite sex, but to have fucking fun! Really! I follow the idea that if music makes you want jump and down, then jump up and down! Forget the embarrassment that comes with trying to impress someone with your dancing, just do whatever the hell you feel like. Dancing is the greatest thing ever for those who want to express feeling through dance. All that said, I am one of the greatest disco dancers of all time. Hands down.

Anyway, as one of the final slow songs of the evening, you know, the one where you're supposed to finally wind up with the person you have true affection for and stare MEANINGFULLY into each other's eyes and postulate on "For us, what happens next?", "Syne" is the greatest song, since it is about the time AFTER the relationship, after you've had your final dance with someone and they -- and you -- have gone on to other things. For those of us who had an eye on the future, it became the song to dance to and ponder deep, philosophical thoughts about the end of high school, the beginning of adulthood. It can be the first understanding of the power of nostalgia -- even before you've earned it. "Syne" allows that feelings never quite disappear, but are replaced, and either submerged completely, or re-interpreted ("I shouldn't have been a jazz musician after all!"). So you get a feeling of nostalgia just from hearing the song, because you once danced to it with someone you said you liked a lot, maybe loved, and now aren't with. Nowadays, the song simply takes me back to the time when I thought deep thoughts about relationships instead of actually having them; when I "acted" instead of doing. It's nice to think that teenagers are self-aware in high school, but in most cases, we were doing what we thought we were supposed to do at the time, instead of actually doing something because we wanted to do it. High school is a time of role playing, not introspection, unless you're role playing the part of an introspective teenager, which is, again, a role (and then you become a Goth: "Burn! Burn! Burn Hot Topic! Don't let it steal your soul!").

And that's why "Syne" is so sad. These two people are trying to connect with old parts they used to play, but that time is over. It'd be nice to recreate some magic every once in a while, but a lot of times, there isn't magic, just nostalgia. My nostalgia for the song "Same Old Lang Syne" is on many levels, from remembering people I used to dance to during it, to the genius of Darren Penrod, who put it on last on the slow-dance/make-out mix tape most of us copied to have as our own. You know, the one that had a lot of Journey, Styx (Styx?), and The Eagles, whose "Wasted Time" is another one of those instant nostalgia songs, but isn't Xmas-related, so it's not in here. It reminds me of a time when I thought I actually knew a lot of stuff, but it turned out I knew shadows of things, like owning the guidebook to Plato's Cave and expecting it to provide the true experience, rather than just being promotional material. I strongly believe that graduating from high school causes a sort of mental illness. You're grouped in with a bunch of people for up to 13 years, and then -- POOF! -- you're not. Set up. Fail. Suddenly, you don't see that guy with the cowboy hat in the hallway anymore, or hear Darron Dunbar's magnificent, wonderful laugh, or see Cindy, or ineffectually criticize everything decent with Mark, go "Myeh!" with another Mark, or slow dance with whoever happened to be closest and cutest when the right song came on. Good days, high school. Too bad, as the saying sort of goes, that we aren't adults when we experience it, so we can understand the beautiful tragedy of it all: fraudulent, meaningful, pointless, incisive high school.

So "Same Old" re-creates, for me, that realization, late in my high school tenure, that I had spent too much time trying to do what you're supposed to do in high school, and not enough time actually enjoying it, which is, of course, part of the teenage experience, too. Oh, to be the un-enlightened person who looked at high school with less pretentiousness and less shit-headedness. Oh, to patronize some more. Oh, for the days when I didn't have to worry about so much shit that it becomes hard to be a part of one's life, and not an observer. Well, that's what adulthood is for -- to figure out the world. And you have a long time to do it. Adulthood lasts the rest of your life, which means you have a lot of opportunities to figure out stuff, but as you get older, less time to enjoy the knowledge as you try to pass it on to someone younger than you who is in the same trap you were "at that age". At the end of "Same Old Lang Syne," the protagonists part, and the snow turns to rain, which will wash away the beauty of the Winter Wonderland and return us to the rest of the year. Christmas is a time for reflection and exhaling -- lots of exhaling. Far from there being a War on Christmas, we rush towards the end of the year faster and faster each year, hoping the exhalation process starts earlier and earlier and lasts longer. Crappy Christmas music starts blaring out of radios a little earlier in November each year, and each year, Wal-Mart tries to push Xmas on us a bit sooner. I realize that some people are concerned about the death of Christmas, which is the dumbest fucking thing ever. No, it's more dumb than those Christmas commercials that try to convince you to buy the stuff you want instead of being happy with just getting a gift. And I know that Bill O'Reilly's greatest Holiday wish is to run around with a claw hammer bashing in the skulls of any and all who don't celebrate Christmas the same way he does every year: fucking mountains of hookers on top of a running chainsaw. But that's his deal, and he's wrong about Christmas. What he's really worried about is being passed by, about not being a part of something. He doesn't want his way of life to disappear, so he forces the world into his own mold, and tries to compress it into a shape, much like using a Play-Doh extractor. He's doomed to fail, thank God. As history bypasses us and makes it more difficult to actually be involved in a moment of history than ever before -- witness the "instant historocity" of the Obama election, and he hasn't even taken office yet -- we are forced to concentrate on the mundanity of our own lives, and try to force events into narrative conventions so we "get" our lives. Well, there's nothing to "get", no "meaning" to extract. There are lessons to be learned, for sure, but not everyone gets them. Christmas is a time of beautiful impermanence. It comes, leaves a trail of destruction in its wake, makes us happy for a few weeks, and then is gone until next year. Snow falls, sits on the ground, then melts or gets washed away by the rain. Presents are wrapped, and the wrapping paper is ripped and tossed in the corner to get at the thing inside, then winds up in the garbage can, unless you reuse it, which is a stupid idea. Whatever event you thought was incredibly meaningful in your teenage years turns out to be useful for creating nostalgia, that beautiful feeling that nothing will ever be the same again. Damn, I hope so.

6.5 Hey, Merry Christmas everyone. Happy Holidays, just to make sure everyone gets a shout out. While my sarcasm meter may be off the charts right now, the one thing I really want to do right now is thank all those people who have been and those who are still a part of my life. I hope you're happy. I hope you succeed at something. I hope you are loved by someone and love someone back, even if it's a love without all that fluid passing. I hope you can be the person you want to be instead of the person someone else wants you to be, or that society wants you to be. I hope you're not judged, and I hope you don't judge. If you're religious, remember that you could be wrong. If you're not religious -- ahem --, remember that you could be wrong. Share a gift with someone for reasons other than selfish ones, and love the gifts you receive because they were given for this reason: Appreciation. "The worst thing in the world," the amazing songwriter Peter Case once wrote, "is to be unwanted/ To be used up and thrown away." Like wrapping paper. So take your time unwrapping things. Someone spent some time making the gift look pretty, and you should take your time in order to appreciate the thought. If you are alone this Christmas, and I've been there myself, appreciate the incredible feeling of independence and the fact that you're leading an alternative Christmas lifestyle. Break a tradition, and try to create a new one. Whatever the heck else you do this holiday, try to be nice to someone. Happy Saturnalia, everyone. I mean, Happy Kwanzaa. Sorry, I meant, Happy Hanukkah, all of you. I mean, have a nice life. Breathe deep and exhale slowly, since you have another full year heading at you faster than you'd probably like to realize.

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