Christmas Music: A Postmortem Reflection

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While surfing the web recently, I noted that one Christmas music-hating blogger asks, "Why do I have to hear Little Drummer Boy on the radio over and over again?" The answer is fairly straightforward: the giganta-corp, media conglomerates turn out uninspiring, repetitive rubbish they think the dumbed-down listeners want to hear.

The problem with radio is that it is a government-controlled medium. It is government-regulated because the airwaves are considered to be a public good. Oh sure, the media conglomerates are "private" in the sense that they are publicly-owned corporations, but they operate on publicly-owned airwaves and are nothing more than government propaganda mills. They offer the public a service — superficially "free" music1 — and what you typically hear on their radio stations reflects the reality that there is no free-market price system to encourage a higher-quality, more diverse product.

So often, you hear people say they "hate" Christmas music — they are tired of the same old, repetitive songs that drive them batty year-after-year. This is because most consumers of commercial radio are content with the status quo found on the government airwaves. They don’t seek alternatives because radio, with all its talk, news, and music, is supposed to be "free." People are conditioned to believing that certain goods have to be public goods, and accordingly, the idea of paying for a competing product seems highly unreasonable.

Consequently, when we listen to the "all Christmas music" stations post-Thanksgiving, we hear ruthless renditions of Santa Baby and Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. Sure, these dumbed-down, pseudo-Christmas songs appeal to the inner imbecile in some — but not all — of us. The more immediate problem is that the recurrent comic relief being passed off as Christmas music suffers from an old disease known as "political correctness." Now I’ve seen those who love to point out certain Christmas music that is "politically incorrect" because it is full of offensive lyrics or broad stereotypes. Pshaw! There’s nothing virtuous or enriching about distasteful doggy-doo masquerading as the sounds of the season.

The real problem with the current crop of Christmas songs on the radio is that Christmas, and the music that goes along with it, has become politically incorrect. Christmas music, these days, has come to mean "holiday" music, minus the Christmas. The word Christmas, you see, has become taboo in a period where diversity reigns — except for when it comes to a traditional, Christian celebration like Christmas. The publicly-owned airwaves have long been expunging traditional, religious Christmas music in favor of secular tunes and clownish melodies that reflect a generic "holiday" theme. Of course, broad-category tunes like those can’t possibly offend those who celebrate atheism and demand that age-old customs be banished from the public airwaves. Thus we hear "safe" songs like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Happy Holidays replacing more conventional themes that center on the birth of Christ or the celebration of religious life.

In the Detroit area, WNIC FM 100.3 starts to play its Christmas music on Nov 1st, and it’s played non-stop until Christmas day. It could be a great thing except that its playlist is so small and selective that listening to it for more than one hour is an agonizing experience. You can expect to hear Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer at the beginning, middle, and end of the hour, and in between, Nat King Cole’s Christmas Song battles with some version, any version, of Winter Wonderland for most airplay. Nat King Cole, in fact, has a magnificent catalog of Christmas songs that never see the light of day due to their traditional flavor. The station, like most radio stations nowadays, has severely limited the music it plays that contains references to the spiritual aspects of "Christmas." Only those songs with the secular, fluff lyrics are heard in the normal rotation, while the traditional, popular Christmas songs receive very little time on air.

A friend of mine, Ken, started complaining to the station a few years ago. He sent letters and he called, asking why the station was resorting to half-baked, secular, pop tunes in place of the old, religious classics. He was told the standard line: the station had to avoid offending its listeners and thus had to "balance" its rotation. Songs like Joy to the World,2 Hark the Herald, and O Come, All Ye Faithful had all but disappeared from the rotation. The older, beautiful choral songs by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Philadelphia Orchestra, or the Robert Shaw Chorale — songs that I grew up with on the radio — were no longer played. O Holy Night, especially the Mannheim Steamroller or Johnny Mathis versions, used to get frequent attention. Not any longer. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Jingle Bell Rock are among the new classics for the easily-offended generation. As with everything else, the few whiners (and there are very few) in the embittered minority, who complained that their rights were being violated by subliminal Christian messages, had won the battle.

Thankfully, the market provides for the rest of us who desire something other than the Christmas perversions served up by Clear Channel or CBS/Infinity. First, there’s satellite radio — Sirius offers its Channel 2, which played Christmas music round-the-clock all through December. I listened to Sirius 2 every weekday at work in December, and was quite pleased with its format. The variety was far from what I ultimately desire, but playing "Christmas" music of the traditional variety was never an issue, and also, only rarely did I hear the awful Santa Baby3 or Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. Sirius gets a B+ for its effort and quality.

However, nothing has made a difference in my ability to collect and organize huge collections of Christmas music like the glorious iPod and its companion iTunes. I own nearly 12 gigabytes of Christmas music with no duplicates. Oh sure, there are a zillion versions of each song, but by different artists and with varied styles. My Christmas collection includes some rather strange bedfellows: Medieval, Victorian, a cappella, Appalachian, country, bluegrass, big band, brass, choir, inspirational, organ, New Age, classical, gospel, traditional, and even some doo-wop and rock. After all, who could do without Phil Spector’s Christmas album or the Drifters?

Apple’s iTunes works on a simple market concept: you want it, you purchase it. I go out and sift through thousands of Christmas songs and select those that add a bit of idiosyncrasy to my collection. Mostly, I like to search on song titles. I look up my favorite classics — Noel Nouvelet, Masters in This Hall, Coventry Carol, or Still, Still, Still — and come across newer, undiscovered artists who perform breathtaking versions of these classics in traditional form. It was here that I discovered stellar performers such as the Dickens Carollers, John St. John, and Acoustic Eidolon.

For instance, when I sort my iTunes collection by song title, I come up with over eighty different versions of Little Drummer Boy for my listening pleasure. The William Ellwood (Narada), Vienna Boys Choir, and Celtic Woman versions are among my favorites. How can one possibly be content with commercial radio and its one or two versions of the song! With iTunes one can search, preview, download, and then easily drag around song titles to develop new and intriguing playlists in just minutes.

As I write, I am listening to Maggie Sansone’s Fire in the Hearth and Captain O’Kane/Planxty George Brabazon, followed by Michael Crawford’s stunning Candlelight Carol — none of which are standard fare for the masses. And though I bemoan the death of Christmas music beneath the jackboots of structured, government radio, I celebrate the market’s plentiful alternatives and thus the glories of the Christmas — not holiday — season.

NOTES

  1. If the government provides a public good, it is always deemed "free" by those who make use of the good and forget that it is the theft of individuals’ wealth that pays for that good. One of the many "benefits" governments receive from the payroll deduction form of theft is the perception that "I never had the money in the first place."
  2. The lyrics are inconceivable to the easily offended: "Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room, And heaven and nature sing…"
  3. This song is as meaningful to the traditions of Christmas music as romance novels are to the Western Canon.

Karen De Coster [send her mail] is a Certified Public Accountant who works in finance and accounting in the securities industry. She is also a freelance writer/researcher, and oftentimes writes for clients in the nutrition, food, and fitness industry. She currently has three iPods, with one dedicated to classical and Christmas music. This is her LewRockwell.com archive and her Mises.org archive. Check out her website, along with her blog.

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