I got to thinking about how whenever you pile together Christmas songs that people hate Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is invariably near the top of the heap. Often the only things listed as more annoying are novelty songs about how annoying Christmas is what with its agenda of hearth and home and security and generosity. But even if you do hate it, you know what the song is, which is a pretty impressive standing for Christmas songs written after 1965 by anyone but Rankin/Bass staff writers. Think of all the Christmas songs written in the past three decades that you can’t remember: you can’t, because I cleverly framed the debate by the rhetorical method of being a dirty cheater. Ha ha! But those new songs are still out there, waiting on the Modern Christmas music channels, keeping you away from the songs you have any chance of recognizing.
What I wonder is how Paul McCartney feels about writing nearly the last important addition to the Christmas song canon even though people only mention it to chant “no” in time with every synthesized note. Does, like, Ray Davies ever pop in to his place and say something like, “Oi! Good job stuffing the wireless full of your learning the buttons on your new Casio,” and then punch a wall because he heard Roger Daltrey had once leaned against it? And then Paul answers, “I know, lad, but we were on deadline so published before I had enough lines that were just pleasant syllables like ‘ding dong ding dong’ or ‘wo wo wo wo’ or what.” And then producer Trevor Horn waves a hand and emits some complicated sound, because he comes from the North of England, where the people have no language and communicate instead by a melodic series of intonations occasionally marked by the loan-words “howay” or “dou’t”. What he means is hey, he’s not responsible for the writing of “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, but that definitely postdates “Wonderful Christmastime” and people like listening to it enough to complain that yes, technically speaking, many people in Africa have a good idea when Christmas is but that’s missing the whole point of the song. They concede because it’s too hard to carry on the debate.
Still, I feel like there’s a problem with how hard it is getting a good new Christmas song going. I don’t think it’s a major problem, like crumbling infrastructure or the way my car needs some weird mutant cable to connect to an iPod, especially since there’s a vast reserve of forgotten Christmas songs from the 40s and 50s we can turn to if we need something different, but it’s a problem yet. Some of it I think is we’ve lost universal references; for example, it used to be most everyone could have, or plausibly have, snow on Christmas. But the population’s been moving to warmer territories ever since technology made it possible to ignore the Arizona state legislature behaving like that, and now the only thing songwriters can be confident will happen around Christmas is that people will be complaining about Christmas songs.
We don’t write songs that contain stories anymore, which might be a problem, since a lot of great Christmas songs are narrative ones, like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and I hear rumors there’s a third or fourth and maybe even a fifth. When I say “we” I mean “people who aren’t me”, for reasons that make sense when you consider my contributions to music mostly cause other people shake their heads sadly and pat me, assuring me that things will get better.
There are plenty of Christmas Song mood pieces, like “Winter Wonderland” or and here I want to mention “Silver Bells” but my love hates that song so let’s just move on to the rest of the list, and our songwriters certainly know how to write that these days. For example, Walk The Moon has done very well with an anthemic song about the house falling apart, and OK Go is similarly successful with the idea that there’ll be a morning coming. If they joined forces they could surely paint a picture of how when the house arrives, morning will fall apart. This is good but it isn’t very Christmas-y so maybe I just figured out what the problem was. Sorry for the bother of working this out in public.