Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” is the worst kind of bad song

Christmas music doesn’t have to be good to be enjoyable. It’s fun to hear the mixed bag of it all. Pointless, upbeat ditties like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” share the radio dial with the reverent “O Holy Night” and the wistful “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

Which brings us to the song I’m picking on: Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” It’s a swing-and-a-miss of a Christmas song.

You’ve heard the song – in fact, you’ve probably heard it a few times just this year. It was, of course, the signature song for Ron Howard’s 2000 adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

The tune isn’t bad. The lyrics ruin what could be a great song.

The first stanza:

Where are you Christmas?
Why can’t I find you?
Why have you gone away?
Where is the laughter
You used to bring me?
Why can’t I hear music play?

Hill goes on to sing about how time has changed her as a person, and wonders if Christmas will ever bring the same enjoyment she enjoyed in her youth.

So far, so good. There could be a very resonant story in here. Hill is singing about something many people go through. As we grow up, Christmas means different things to us. It’s not a bad setup, and has the potential to be a very relevant and affirming song.

After two stanzas of that, we hear this bridge:

Christmas is here
Everywhere, oh
Christmas is here
If you care, oh

If there is love in your heart and your mind
You will feel like Christmas all the time

Okay, I guess? Surely there must be more to this journey. But no, there’s just the last stanza.

Oh, I feel you Christmas
I know I’ve found you
You never fade away…

And that’s pretty much it. To paraphrase the song’s main narrative points:

  • I don’t feel the Christmas spirit this year.
  • It’s Christmas.
  • Okay, I feel the Christmas spirit this year.

This is a Lucy Van Pelt level of holiday psychiatry.

It works a little bit better viewed a companion piece to the Grinch movie, in which the Whos down in Whoville are wrapped up in the material trappings of Christmas at the expense of the Christmas spirit.

Still, this touches a nerve. It could be a really good and unique song. Many people have a soft spot for the Christmasses they celebrated as a kid, when the magic just seemed to happen all around them. Growing to adulthood (which is to say Christmas, as in Yule…) brings the assorted stress points of the holiday season. (Sidebar: This topic was covered in another carol, “The 12 Pains of Christmas.”)

The payoff for being an adult at Christmas is getting to be the magician who makes the Christmas season wonderful for others. Being a musical soliloquy, the song doesn’t tackle that. At the beginning and end of the song , Hill sings about feelings the audience can identify with, but she skips the viable transition.

There’s a story in there, one that audiences would hear and identify with. The songwriters should have had Hill sing about watching her kids at Christmas, or about bringing joy to others. They could have created something with depth that spoke to contemporary audiences. The potential was there to create a true modern classic in the tradition of The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” or Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Auld Lang Syne.

Instead, they skipped the depth and crapped out a shallow, schmaltzy song to promote a mediocre movie. Like a half-assed Christmas gift, it leaves you wishing they just wouldn’t have bothered in the first place.

 

 

 

That mad world of blood, death, and fire

Each March, someone on Facebook posts a video of Liam Clancy singing “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” for St. Patrick’s Day. The song’s protagonist is an Australian World War I soldier and its writer is Scottish-born, but Irish singers seem to do it the most justice. Written in 1971, you’d be excused for categorizing it with the anti-war songs of its era. But give it a listen after you’ve spent about 24 total hours listening to Dan Carlin talk about World War I, or read any of the grisly accounts from the era, and the song takes on a much different tone.

World War I was called “The War to End All Wars” because of the near-universal realization that modern warfare sucks. As the song alludes, killing technology has been getting much more efficient in the past century and a half, and WWI was the first chance to observe that trend.

Since World War I, most long-term conflicts have had some sort of moral reasoning. World War II fought Adolph Hitler’s plan for world domination; the Cold War fought the Soviet plan for World world domination; the War on Terror fights jihadis who use radicalized Islam to justify their plan for world domination, and so forth. World War I was, in many ways, a local territorial war that expanded because of alliances and agreements among great powers. For example, if France and Russia didn’t have an “I Got Your Back If You Got Mine” treaty, Germany might not have invaded France – heck, maybe Great Britain wouldn’t have been in the war at all.

When you think about how much of that war was triggered by paper and handshakes, and then read or listen to how ill-prepared the military leaders and troops were for the shift from horses and swords to tanks and machine guns, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” becomes that much more more sad.

Ice Cream Trucks Bring Racism to America

A story on NPR this week tells us that a song commonly used as the siren call for ice cream trucks combing through suburbia  was released in 1916 under the title, “N***** Love a Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.”

Shock! Horror! And interesting to note, as the author of the piece does, that minstrel music was the original soundtrack for ice cream parlors. The tunes made the leap to ice cream trucks out of tradition.

Since it’s been a while since I traded CD’s with Donald Sterling, I didn’t recognize the song.  How did they find this vile ditty and put it in an ice cream truck?

For his creation, [Songwriter Harry] Browne simply used the well-known melody of the early 19th-century song “Turkey in the Straw,” which dates back to the even older and traditional British song “The (Old) Rose Tree.” The tune was brought to America’s colonies by Scots-Irish immigrants who settled along the Appalachian Trail and added lyrics that mirrored their new lifestyle.

Well, now wait a second.

Turkey in the Straw” is a pretty common tune. It’s programmed into many of the electronic toys my daughters have played with in infancy and toddlerhood – maybe not as ubiquitous as the ABC’s, but in the mix with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Good Humor and Fisher Price probably use the song for the same reason: since it’s in the public domain, there are no copyright fees.

But author Theodore Johnson brings up the interesting point that the tune gained popularity through minstrel songs. Does the song’s significance really go beyond interesting history?

There are probably thousands of songs lost to the ages, so why does “Turkey in the Straw” still get played today? Is it lingering racism? Or is it just a bouncy, free tune whose origins are largely forgotten?

I’ll go with the latter. Otherwise, we have some problems with Steamboat Willie.

 

Our Violent National Anthem

No one who has spent much time reading about America’s college campuses (campi?) will be surprised to learn that an institution has banned the singing or playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” before sporting contests.

Who was behind it? The anti-American crowd?  The Marxists?   The hippies?  The greens?  Cornel West?

Try the Mennonites:  Goshen College in Indiana, the school which banned the tune, is a Mennonite school with the motto “Healing the World, Peace by Peace.”  The rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air are too violent.

The anthem is being replaced at Goshen sporting events by “America the Beautiful,” so we can assume this isn’t really a commentary on the nation we all call home being a haven for imperialist capitalist pigs.  Part of what makes America beautiful is that each person has the right to express their patriotism as they see fit.  If the students and administrators at Goshen don’t want to play the national anthem before their Division 8 field hockey games, that’s fine.  Those of us who have never donated to or attended Goshen have no right to tell them otherwise.

On the other hand, as an educational institution, so one would hope Goshen’s choice is educated.  And the idea that the anthem is a violent song is a bit misguided.

Of course, the “Star-Spangled Banner” does use military imagery, because it was famously written during the War of 1812 as a poem by Francis Scott Key – specifically, during the bombardment of Baltimore.  That was a fight that was brought to American shores by then-mortal foe England; we were on defense for that one.

Though set during a battle scene, the theme of the poem – especially the part used for the national anthem – is perseverance through difficulty.  Turbulence and war may come, Key writes (much more eloquently), but American ideals of freedom and peace endure.

Delve a little further into the story behind the poem, and it becomes even more apparent that it is hardly a call to arms.  Remember that Key saw the flag over Fort McHenry from a British ship; he was aboard on a peaceful mission to argue for the release of a popular Maryland doctor.  To make his case, Key presented letters from British soldiers lauding the care they received from American doctors (and this was before the current mess that passes for a British health care system).  The British acquiesced, but held Key and the doctor on the prison ship because the bombing of Baltimore was about to begin; they didn’t want to release a prisoner only to blow them up minutes later.  In the midst of war, both Key and the British officers demonstrated some level of civility and mutual respect.

The fact most worth noting is that the folks America was fighting in the background of Key’s poem, the British, are our closest allies today.  Despite fighting two wars within  30 years, Americans and Britons are fast friends.  (Heck, we can’t even launch a television show without swiping the concept from them, and they have, what, four channels?)

So in an educated historical context, the “Star Spangled Banner” is a song about perseverance through adversity and, after your business on the battlefield is over, making peace with your enemies.

Hey, that sounds like a pretty good song to play before an amateur sporting contest.

Cross-posted at PunditLeague.us.

Hey! iTunes! Leave our tracks alone!

If you’re buying Pink Floyd tracks online, you’ll have to buy the whole album, thanks to a ruling handed down this week in the band’s legal dispute against EMI.

The music media landscape is changing, and while bands like OK Go have proved masterful at taking advantage, there’s something to be said about Pink Floyd’s insistence that their music is sold the way it was made. (Ironically enough, OK Go had to fight EMI to execute their vision of social promotion.)

This is an artistic decision, not a business decision.  Albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are built differently than today’s albums, which are often a collection of singles.  Those albums are like movies – while isolated parts might be enjoyable, they only really make sense when taken as a whole.  Today’s music might be more akin to a episodes of a TV show – enjoyable and self-contained in smaller pieces.

The decision won’t help Pink Floyd sell music.  But that’s not the point.

The loss of an American icon – literally

MTV will make a small but significant change in its logo.  The M, the T, and of course the V will remain, but the channel will no longer include the words “music television” underneath.   Those of us nostalgic for the early glory days – when one could actually catch the video for Glory Days on MTV – may complain about the death of music television, but will we really miss it?

When MTV first launched, shows like Yo MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball acted like radio on television – giving audiences a way to expand their music horizons and generating crossover appeal.  As videos evolved, they became more involved and independent of the music they presented – short films set to music.  There was always a reason to tune into MTV and watch hours of music programming: either you might find something new to listen to, or eventually you’re going to see your favorite funny or interesting mini-movie featuring some cool music.

Finding new music you like can be done on internet radio stations like Pandora.  And if you really want to see music videos, YouTube or a plethora of other sites can serve that purpose.  Music television has been erased not only from MTV’s logo, but from television.  It’s a wise programming move – an extended block of music videos just isn’t useful programming anymore, unless it’s overnight or early morning.  You can’t get money for nothing.

All that being said, there are some of us who latched onto our favorite bands, in part, because of interesting and innovative videos… like these: