When we complain about Christmas music, it’s not the songs themselves. It’s the way they’re forced upon us. Also, it’s the songs themselves.
Consider a dopey ditty like “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Lyrics:
“Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus lane.”
Imagine this megalomaniac’s GPS instructions: “Proceed south on Santa Claus Lane for a quarter-mile, then take a left on Santa Claus Avenue. In a half a mile, turn right on Santa Claus Boulevard until you reach your destination, Santa Claus City.”
Most people, given the choice, would prefer never to hear “Here Comes Santa Claus” again. Most people die a little inside when they are encouraged to rock around the Christmas tree in late November. Most people are driven a tad mad when reminded once again that Paul McCartney is simply having a wonderful Christmas time.
Then they drag out the Bing again, because if you dislike “White Christmas” you are a bad person with coal for a heart. You can’t say “It’s a beautiful song and it takes me back to sweet days of yore, where memories were forged that define my bittersweet love of the season as it is, and as it was. But I’m pumping gas right now and I don’t feel like crying.”
Instead you must listen, because the curse of the modern world is music: It’s everywhere, it’s loud, it’s awful.
Example: There is a time and a place for Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and that time happened a half-century ago, and the place was some dorm room where people were rapping about Nixon, man.
The time and place is not the airport bar at 7:30 a.m.
But there it was, blaring out over the speakers while bleary-eyed people spooned steam-table eggs into their faces. Airports exist in a strange limbo where time is irrelevant until it is specifically crucial. It’s never morning or night, it’s just a timeless void you endure until it’s time to board and depart. So of course the bar is open. Someone who’s been up for 17 hours may need a drink. Of course the music is loud and lousy — it’s a bar.
“Do they make you play that?” I asked the bartender as I walked past in hopes of finding a quiet spot in the departure lounge. She nodded with an expression of infinite weariness. She didn’t want to hear Steppenwolf at 7:30 a.m., either.
In fact, no one did. If I may utter a bold and controversial opinion, no one in the world ever needs to hear that song again. But we are cursed. We must listen to the soundtrack of the baby boomers’ youth for the rest of our lives, and there is nothing we can do about it.
“Born to Be Wild” was released in 1968. Imagine someone sitting in an airport in 1968, smoking a cigarette and hearing “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” by Charles Harrison, the No. 3 hit song of 1918. Tinny sound, warbly voice, a little ukulele. He would think that the person running the sound system had been hijacked by World War I vets.
This is not an argument for playing modern music, either. I was in a burger joint in Florida and they were playing something from the top of the charts, some lout dribbling syllables over a thump-tish, thump-tish beat. Loud. The patrons: a mom and three toddlers, and an elderly couple whose expressions seemed to say “We’re not deaf enough, alas.”
So what do I want? Music that’s not intended to be noticed. A string ensemble mincing away in the corner. It sets the mood: happy, civilized, unobtrusive. It’s born to be mild.
Hear me out. It’s reviled because it’s regarded as aural anesthesia — bland, slightly peppy, saccharine, forgettable. I hear the stuff now and I’m 7 again at the Supervalu with Mom, dreamy tunes wafting from tinny speakers above.
But it’s the perfect soundtrack for being in public with other people we don’t know. Even if it’s banal, at least everyone agrees it’s banal. It’s better than hearing the sounds of the boomers’ lost youth everywhere you go, as if it’s some holy liturgy to which we must tap our toes in perpetuity. Let’s be done with it. No more boomer anthems.
Except for that one ’60s song, right? Right. That one’s awesome.