Music is generally the place where you can hide yourself from life when it all gets too much, or too little. But what happens when music – in public places, and blaring unbidden from the television – becomes part of the problem? The bonfires are still smoking when the first Christmas TV commercials grace our screens and from thereon it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to turn the rotten thing off before you find out which favourite pop song has been waylaid and worked over by the latest John Lewis collaborator. And after that, the cinnamon-dusted deluge.
Loath as I am to dignify the concept of triggering, it made sense when the psychologist Linda Blair claimed that premature Christmas music may create anxiety, especially in shop workers ceaselessly exposed to it. Apparently it acts as a sort of singalong to-do list, reminding one of the shopping, party planning and travelling – things that are sources of pleasure when considered at any other time – required in order to make the Most Wonderful Time of the Year a special occasion.
Of course, it used to be effortlessly the most special occasion of all: the birth of someone whom most Western societies saw as their saviour. But, as the saying goes, when a man stops believing in God he doesn’t believe in nothing – he believes in anything. Which explains the rise of the six-bird roast: a turkey stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a duck stuffed with a guinea fowl stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a quail, and a horror to rival anything out of HP Lovecraft.
At this time of the year music is no longer a sanctuary but a minefield, the ghosts of Christmas past forever ready to leap out and mug us with memories. The seasonal songs of my youth make me regret what a cow I was to my parents. The songs of my dead son’s youth make me remember what a happy little family we once were. The classic Phil Spector Christmas album makes me think of what his wife and muse Ronnie once said about him screaming at her so violently she eventually became mute, and how he is now in jail for murdering a young woman who refused to remain mute in the face of his screaming violence.
Even on the lighter side, so many songs about Christmas reference being without the one you love, and though this may have seemed fanciful when one was a tot surrounded by family, we’re now allegedly facing a loneliness epidemic affecting one in four people, making repeated playing of Mud’s Elvis parody “Lonely This Christmas” sound cruel rather than cute.
Of course, one could swerve seasonal pop altogether and listen to the classic Christmas songs: “White Christmas”; “Let it Snow”; “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. Written by Jewish émigrés to America, these songs have an outsider element – a ragged ghetto boy with his nose pressed up against a frosted window, eyes feasting on the Christian cornucopia within. The songs see Christmas not as a penance but as a blessing: their authors were now in a country where Christians wouldn’t try to massacre them. But in a year in which postwar anti-Semitism has reached new heights of sub-humanity, these songs have acquired a new and sorrowful resonance.
And then just when I’m about to start feeling sorry for myself, I get a rush of gratitude that I was a teenager when we had the mindless proletarian jollity of Slade and Wizzard to urge us on through the festive season – those raucously good-humoured, good-natured songs, performed by men from unpretty cities such as Birmingham and Wolverhampton, smothered in sparkle and gagging on glitter yet still very obviously the horny-handed sons of their hard-labouring fathers. (“Step into Christmas” by their contemporary Elton John stiffed in 1973 but was a smash hit last year as we yearned for the simple pleasures of power cuts and the three-day week.)
They remind me of a time when the working class was in the driving seat – in politics and in pop – when the trade unions (for good or ill) could still bring the country to a standstill and the nearest anyone with a degree got to the all-important singles chart was some chancer who’d mucked about a bit at art school.
This lack of pretentiousness was echoed by the popularity, particularly seasonal, of the dear departed Novelty Record. I’m not saying I’d like to be trapped in a lift with “Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West” but I’d prefer that to having to listen to Mumford and Sons, whose take on Christmas would surely be so nihilistically tasteful that it would make “Gaudete” sound like “My Ding-a-Ling”.
Looking back, there are acts whose sheer popness was so incandescent that their whole careers seemed somehow to be a magnificent novelty that naturally amped up during public festivities. Keen to get the view from the funky side of the street, I petitioned my New Statesman mates Suzanne Moore and Nick Lezard. Suzanne goes for “T Rex – Marc Bolan just looked like Christmas should be”.
Nick says: “The Beatles always make me think of Christmas, because their films were on television. When I was about 12 I asked for the White Album for Christmas; I went to my parents’ secret present stash on the 24th, when they were out, and played it that night, wondering, ‘Will this take away the thrill tomorrow?’ Next day my enthusiasm was unfeigned, and I practically wore it out over the rest of the year. Ever since, it simply means ‘Christmas’. I passed on the tradition to my children, and they will play nothing else on the day itself.”
Why fight it? Humbug’s cancelled! Deck the hall, crank up “Don’t Let the Bells End” and bring it on, because I’m starting to feel as festive as the big bird with the other five stuffed inside it.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special