Muddling Through Holiday Music

A self-proclaimed Scrooge discovers seasonal songs that don't suck.



I hate holiday music. I hate its condescending tone (the most wonderful time of the year), its empty promises (I'll be home for Christmas), and, worst of all, its insistence that we buy more stuff (please have snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree). Granted, my hatred of holiday music is a natural by-product of my hatred of the holidays themselves, a time that reminds me of my inadequacies more than anything: fractured families, financial woes, the absence and death of loved ones, the social pressure to act merry, and then those damn whiney, nasally voices ringing in my ear telling me to cheer up. There's no soul to those songs, no layered truths about the holidays, and not even a beat to dance away the sticks of butter. But this year, I wondered if I might be missing something, and decided to investigate. What I found surprised me.

My first recommendation came from El Vez (aka Robert Lopez, the "Mexican Elvis"), who suggested his own holiday album, Merry MeX-mas. From the Pixies-esque rendition of "Feliz Navidad" to the psychobilly of "Sleigh Ride" to the holiday-on-the-pueblo "Brown Christmas," these songs are fun, fiery, and danceable reinterpretations of Christmas classics. A friend and music critic at the Guardian reminded me that The Pretenders' "2000 Miles" is indeed a holiday song, and who can argue with Chrissie Hynde's cries of long-distance longing as an acoustic twelve-string guitar hums in the background? Another writer recommended The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl's "Fairytale of New York," a beautiful and melancholy piano ballad about the drunk tank on Christmas Eve. And the Express' own Ellen Cushing pointed me to Lady Gaga's "Christmas Tree," a bizarre pop song with a sexy beat in which Gaga seems to interpret the holiday tree as a natural extension of her overt sexuality. I also revisited the only holiday song I've always liked, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," crystallized in all its sadness by a young Judy Garland in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland's voice, accompanied only by strings, sounds as if it's on the brink of sobbing despite opening and extending the end of each word. We'll have to muddle through somehow, she sings — now there's the holiday I know and hate.

Ragnar Bohlin, chorus director at the San Francisco Symphony, described Handel's Messiah as an unorthodox holiday classic about the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. It was, apparently, one of Beethoven's favorite works.

Now I'm not a religious person per se, but Bohlin ultimately sold me on the masterful "polyphonic" movements in Messiah, especially the hallelujah bit, which is often played in post-coital scenes in movies. And so I gave up my precious Saturday night to watch him conduct it at Davies Symphony Hall. Sixteen scenes of sung bible verses later, sung beautifully by the seventy-member chorus, which deserved the standing ovation it received, I decided I needed to cleanse my spirit with some evil rock 'n' roll.

I raced back to Oakland in time to see the psych-rock art-punk outfit Psychic TV take the stage at The Uptown. Luckily, it was late by the time Genesis P-Orridge waddled on stage with a few PTV members in tow. P-Orridge, a 62-year-old writer, performance artist, and former frontman of Throbbing Gristle, one of the first industrial bands, is also transgender and an outspoken occultist. He and his wife Lady Jaye underwent a significant amount of plastic surgery to morph into one another, as chronicled in the documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye; he now looks like a cross between Sam Kinison and Tammy Faye Baker. The band launched into loud reverbed guitar and clanging percussion, its signature art videos projected behind the stage.

"White Nights" has a Lou Reed-like doo-wop melody, simple and repetitive — it's the sort of song that makes you sway, and so we did, eyes closed, until I heard something that made my eyes pop open: Santa Claus is checking his list, going over it twice/seeing who is naughty and who is nice. I shook it off, thinking there was no way PTV wrote a Christmas song, but it continued, until P-Orridge suddenly resembled a jolly St. Nick.

Then, before the band's encore, P-Orridge declared the band's mantra for the next year: "Change the world one kiss at a time," he said. "You'd be amazed what a good kiss can do." And then this man, who has been called a fascist and Satanist and who was briefly exiled from his native England, directed the crowd mid-song to "hug the person next to you" and then "smile at the person behind you and in front of you," which I did, hugging a stranger and smiling at a burly punk-rock guy, clumsily knocking his drink and spilling a bit of it onto his shirt. But he smiled back and said, "It's okay." In fact, it was better than okay, if only for one unexpected, warm-hearted holiday moment.

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