It's the curse of the season: dreadful music

Even good songs get turned to glop, and bad ones? Don't ask

Ideas

December 09, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Reporter

This is the season of peace and joy and good will toward men, yet it's also a time when we experience the dark side of the holidays: bad Christmas music.

You hear it in malls, airports, supermarkets, elevators and restaurants. You hear it at office parties and holiday get-togethers, and no amount of spiked eggnog can blot it from your consciousness. It unnerves you. It drains you. You want to run away.

Even songs that once lifted your spirits have been bastardized by Muzak and techno-pop influences. Now they're used by businesses to create what's called "retail theater," where everyone is chipper, humming along and raring to spend money.

Look what garmin.com did to the joyous "Carol of the Bells" in the commercials for their navigational devices. After seeing the spot 10 or 15 times, you want to get lost forever.

There's no single working definition of bad Christmas music, of course. Jim Nayder, host of The Annoying Music Show on National Public Radio, defines it as "a serious attempt at beautiful music gone awry," a subject his program explores weekly.

Nayder cheerfully contributed to the problem with the release of The Annoying Music Holiday CD in 2000, a compilation that includes the spectacularly awful "Happy Christmas on the Ponderosa" as sung, if that's the word, by Dan Blocker, who played Hoss on the old Bonanza TV series.

Still, it's likely that bad Christmas music, like pornography, is totally subjective. You know it when you hear it. And with each holiday season, you hear more and more of it.

No category of bad Christmas music seems to grate on the nerves more than novelty songs.

"Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo and Patsy is often cited as the ne plus ultra of bad novelty songs. And if they involve animals barking, meowing, mooing, oinking or bleating, the potential for a cringe-inducing reaction rises exponentially.

Nearly 50 years ago, the seminal animal trio (cartoon version) Alvin and the Chipmunks released "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late,)" a screechy, cutesy number that featured the Chipmunks pining for the Big Day, except for Alvin, who appears to be in the throes of a horrible depression.

Inexplicably, the song became a smash hit, rising to No. 1 on the charts. Then the reissued Singing Dogs version of "Jingle Bells," a cacophony of annoying barking that called to mind four Labrador retrievers locked in a dark basement, breathed new life into the genre in 1970.

Soon, the holidays were awash in Christmas tunes by singing cats, singing chickens, singing ducks and the like. As with the explosion of the first atomic bomb, life would never be the same.

(In a telephone conversation from the Chicago offices of NPR affiliate WBEZ-FM, Nayder played "Hava Nagila" by Singin' Cats and Dogs. While not a holiday song, it served to demonstrate the ultimate horror: mixed-species animal songs.

("We feel that with the peace talks going on, if there can be peace between cats and dogs ... there's hope for the Middle East," he said.)

Unfortunately, bad novelty Christmas songs aren't limited to animals.

Space creatures have released them (Christmas in the Stars: The Star Wars Christmas Album). Redneck comedians have released them (A Very Larry Christmas - Larry the Cable Guy; Redneck 12 Days of Christmas by Jeff Foxworthy). Fried chicken magnates have released them (Christmas with Colonel Sanders).

So have '70s sitcom families (Christmas with the Brady Bunch, Partridge Family Christmas), capital-punishment foes (Christmas on Death Row by various artists), even American Idol rejects (William Hung, Hung for the Holidays).

A novelty offshoot of bad Christmas music is, of course, bad Hanukkah music.

Sure, you liked - or at least learned to tolerate - Adam Sandler's whimsical "Hanukkah Song," with such classically dysfunctional lyrics as "David Lee Roth lights the menorah / So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas and the late Dinah Shore-ah."

But can you stomach Kenny Ellis' Sinatra-like rendition of "Swingin' Dreidel," off his 2005 CD Hanukkah Swings!, which harks back to the Rat Pack days, but only if the Rat Pack was carousing at a senior center in the Catskills?

For some, another category of bad Christmas music can be defined in two words: Mannheim Steamroller.

Okay, and two more words: Kenny G.

You either love - or hate with a deep, abiding, teeth-gnashing hatred - the driving, pulsating, techno-meets-orchestra stylings of Mannheim, the Christmas supergroup that has seemingly released 2,000 holiday CDs since its 1984 debut, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, sold 6 million copies.

And wild-haired, dewy-eyed Kenny G's soprano saxophone wailings to such tunes as "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" on his holiday albums are an acquired taste for many, in the sense that one might acquire a taste for acid rain.

Nayder adds holiday songs by Yanni and John Tesh to the list of annoying instrumentals, and the thunderous New Age-y pounding of Trans Siberian Orchestra makes it sound like Mannheim Sreamroller on steroids to some ears.

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