On Monday, Stephen asked, have you had enough of Christmas music yet? He cited a number of sources about how annoying the tunes are (“The loop is too short, that’s part of the problem. Come on, djs! Throw some curves!”) and even an analysis of how the little ear worms work (“When we like a piece of music, it has to balance predictability with surprise, familiarity with novelty. Our brains become bored if we know exactly what is coming next”).
But there’s another simple, somewhat frustrating reason for our irritation: All of the classics that everyone knows, that everyone keeps hearing — are standards. They’re, well, old. So we’ve heard them — and mostly, only them — for decades. Frank J. Oteri writes in New Music Box:
I contend that no recent hit has taken on the earworm status of the ubiquitous holiday melodies.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the whole holiday music canon is how bizarrely anachronistic it is. No new tune has entered that repertoire since the novelty number “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” became an unlikely yuletide favorite three decades ago. The majority of these songs are from a quainter, more innocent-seeming time, untainted by postmodern irony or a disillusion with anything that reeks of consensus. Listening to them each year has become a surreal nostalgia trip.
Is it no longer possible to write a holiday song that can appeal to an extremely wide audience?
The tight Christmas tape loop, then, may be caused by the incredible fragmentation of the audio market. But Oteri argues …
… there are plenty of new experiences related to the holidays, new experiences that a mass audience definitely shares. But no one seems to be writing any new standards.
Oh, they’re certainly trying.
[Trying to write a new holiday standard is] the one arena where aspiring pop songwriters have less of a chance of making a dent than folks who want symphony orchestras or opera companies to program their latest efforts. Last year, a publicist repeatedly pleaded with me to write about “Someone is Missing at Christmas.” (It took a year, but I guess I just did.) Notwithstanding the universality of its theme, that song didn’t press my prose-generating buttons—though who knows, it might press yours. However, I admit to a genuine fondness for Dwight Yoakam’s “Santa Can’t Stay,” released in 1997. I can’t think of any other song that deals with the charged emotions resulting from interacting with exes for the sake of the children on the holidays, which is something that people rarely talked about in previous generations when all of those popular Christmas lyrics were penned.
I think Oteri missed a good choice for a recent, “new standard,” and one that fulfills his criteria for dealing with experiences not normally celebrated in the Age of Irving Berlin: Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family,” originally from 1994. It features inter-racial dating, families extended by divorce and re-marriage, margaritas and Bloody Marys as holiday drinks, tampons, fake snow in a can, Salem Lites, motor homes and attending Alcoholics Anonymous and being annoying about it.
Not only has Keene released the song, he’s released a live version, he’s written a sequel (“Happy Holidays Y’All“), he’s released a wonderful video version (shown above) and he’s even released it as book, published by University of Texas Press, complete with CD.
That cross-platform success suggests a lot of people are listening to it. And have been listening to it for more than a decade. That would seem to be the very definition of a standard. Now perhaps everyone will get sick of it.
The fact that every character mentioned in it (or appearing in the video) seems to be related to me by marriage has had no influence whatsoever on my argument.