Change your tune

If you're tired of those same old Christmas songs, there are lots of quirky melodies to make your holidays merry and bright

December 16, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN REPORTER

More than a sacred holiday - or even a secular display of holly, jolly cheer - Christmas is a blank slate for expressing hopes, dreams and stinging disappointments.

Nothing makes that point more clearly than holiday music. For every "White Christmas" and "Deck the Halls," there's a "Christmas Eve Can Kill You" or a "Dear Santa (Bring Me a Man This Christmas)" to set the record straight.

The heavy rotation of standard Christmas ditties on AM/FM radio hardly reflects the bounty of offbeat material available to those seeking an aural tonic for holiday excess. In genres ranging from Klezmer to hardcore, the annual festival has inspired a profusion of twisted covers, risque parodies, and musical barbs aimed at politics and strife, popular culture and the usual chasm between real life and delusion.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Sports section reported incorrectly that Maryland's Marissa Coleman had recorded the 10th triple double by an Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball player. It was the 11th.
The Sun regrets the error.

The wealth of Christmas music you'll never hear while shopping at K-mart also proves that artists far from the mainstream have mined the holiday's maudlin, ironic and zany qualities with bracingly skewed results. By the time the annual frenzy of peace, goodwill and presents reaches its climax, "Christmas at K-mart" by Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band or "Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt just may win a musical smackdown with Burl Ives or Bing Crosby.

It's "the soundtrack to your dysfunctional family holiday," says Dan Turner, who programs an annual mix of "holiday music songs, oddball parodies and rock covers of holiday classics," for XM satellite radio's Special X-Mas broadcast channel.

"So many of us look back and have memories of Dad who had too much cheap whiskey, and Mom who had one too many Valiums, the turkey got burned and one aunt's kisses lasted just a moment too long," Turner says.

Comedy "is a major building block of the Special X-Mas channel, but so is lounge music, kitsch, hillbilly, doo-wop, odd, rare, interesting or just plain bad [music]," says Turner, also senior vice president of programming operations at XM.

License to stem the yuletide allows listeners to "hear the Christmas Jug Band doing `Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas Money,' followed by Ernie Stubbs' `Merry Texas Christmas to Y'All' next to Weird Al doing `The Night Santa Went Crazy,' then [cult jazz musician] Esquivel's `White Christmas' and then close it out with the Pogues' `Fairytale of New York,' " Turner says. "The idea is to sonically surprise and challenge folks at every corner ... and some surprises aren't always nice."

Novelty Christmas songs like the Singing Dogs' version of "Jingle Bells," or profane interpretations of old chestnuts serve the trickster's role in alleviating the season's intense social pressures. "It's a time when everybody's warning you to be good, and you desperately want to be bad," says Jasen Emmons, curatorial director at the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

"The fun thing about these songs is that you start with sleigh bells and you're anticipating a cheerful holiday song and suddenly it jumps the tracks, and you're run over by a reindeer," says Emmons, referring to the 1979 novelty "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo & Patsy.

"In some ways, the novelty songs are a way of throwing snowballs at the whole idea of Christmas," Emmons says. "It's the Grinch with a good sense of humor."

As incendiary as they may be, subversive Christmas carols fulfill a social purpose, just as their glossier counterparts do. While no performer's repertoire seems complete without a Christmas album, holiday music often circumnavigates crass commercialism, says Eric Weisbard, a Los Angeles-based music authority whose next book is about Guns N' Roses. "The funny thing about Christmas songs is that they are closer to folk music, or standards," Weisbard says. "We sing them together, so they are a bit outside the typical consumer culture idea of a hot new product every season. The last one I heard that seemed revolutionary was [from] Run-DMC!"

In his recent book, White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Jody Rosen notes that the 1942 holiday ballad by Irving Berlin was the first in a "new canon of holiday pop tunes, that, seemingly instantly, had acquired cultural stature on par with Handel's Messiah, traditional Christmas hymns, and 19th century secular carols like `Jingle Bells' and `Deck the Halls.' "

Well before Bing Crosby crooned "White Christmas," though, jazz, country, rhythm and blues and other American roots artists recorded their own Christmas music, Turner says. "Actually, there always has been a comedic and bawdy kind of approach," he adds.

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