Mistletoe and Clichés

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There’s a funny thing about the popular music of Christmas: so much of it seems to box itself in to a limited set of elements. This is true of both the music and the lyrics. The sound world always has to involve something tinkly, either as a direct reference to sleigh bells (or maybe church bells), or as a kind of metaphorical equivalent of the twinkly things we adorn the world with at this time of year – a kind of aural tinsel. The lyrics also have a set collection of wintery iconography to evoke, listing the items that likewise turn up as figurative imagery in Christmas decorations. Cliff Richard’s 1988 hit ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ is the archetypal example, sounding almost fetishistic in its catalogue of seasonal signifiers.

And apart from the direct reference to Christmassy elements, the music seems to limit itself melodically and harmonically to match the reduced range of topical reference. You wouldn’t accuse Cliff Richard of having the most harmonically adventurous oeuvre of recent pop history at the best of times, but his non-Christmas music does usually venture beyond two chords, and his other tunes could be favourably compared to Three BlindMice, against which ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ rather suffers.

If you take a rather more interesting Christmas single, George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’, it’s got more to offer than many Christmas songs – there’s some emotional complexity to the story, and some harmonic shape to the music – but it’s still rather two-dimensional compared to other songs of his from the same era. Like ‘Mistletoe’, it is excessively conjunct in motion, and stays within a very restricted pitch range – something of a waste of George Michael’s voice, really. (You don’t notice how huge his range is until you transcribe something like 'Kissing a Fool' and actually see how far he’s travelling vocally with no signs of strain at either top or bottom.)

When you start looking at the construction of Christmas pop, you suddenly realise why Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ (which you wouldn’t necessarily place in the ‘timeless classic’ category from a standing start) remains so well-loved. That dive out to flat III in the chorus is one of the few refreshing departures from tonic-dominant harmonies you get to hear in shopping centres in December.

As I was wondering why this should be, I turned for comparison to traditional carols and church music from this time of year. And you know, the words have a similar quality of fetishising a limited range of images – in some ways more limited, since the more hymn-like ones tend to restrict themselves to images drawn from the biblical story itself. (The more folk-like carols branch out a bit more in using seasonal images as biblical metaphors – holly, ivy, and the like.) But in a religious context, this kind of ritual quality makes sense: the repetition of shepherding imagery in the music is not in the league of the repetition you get in the liturgy itself. And if traditional melodies are simple, that’s because they are about mass-participation, not entertainment: seven verses of congregational singing is pleasurable in a way that listening to someone else perform seven verses would not be.

And I was thinking about the musical content. The post-Mendelssohn type of carol harmonization does give plenty of harmonic interest, squeezing in rich secondary dominants at the drop of a hat, while leaving the basic melodic line singable. The musically adventurous can entertain themselves on the harmony parts and/or descants while the core of the congregation maintains the musical thread of the tune.

You then get the ‘Carols for Choirs’ generation of arrangements which betray a sense that seven verses of the same tune is a bit much, even varied with unison, or men/women only verses, or a new set of harmonies at the end. Now the carol takes up several pages (instead of two: one for the tune+harmonization, one for the words) using varied textures, key changes, and moving the tune around between different parts to build a sense of overall structure or narrative into the music. These are concert carols, doing their best to generate some interest for entertainment purposes out of the repetitious nature of the material.

And then there are the newly-written carols, which like the concert arrangements, are trying to create some interest from a limited set of resources. You get new characters introduced into the drama to narrate their perspective on the story (little drummer boys, donkeys). You also get musical gestures that run into similar problems to Christmas pop: all those danged ding-a-dongs are heading into a similar world of musical festishism. And I tend to experience the Rutter-esque approach to harmonic richness of diatonic colour chords (major 7ths in particular, but also moving triads over bass pedals) as having a tinsel function, if using pitch rather than timbre. (And actually, the piano accompaniments can be quite tinkly too.)

So I think the reason why Christmas music can be so clichéd is because it is caught uneasily between the ritual pleasures of tradition, with their imperatives towards repetition, and the more secular (and, let’s face it, commodified) pleasures of entertainment and their imperatives for the new. In the meantime, I guess it leaves musicians with opportunity to churn out more and more ‘new’ music that merely shuffles all the old familiar elements so as to satisfy both imperatives whilst getting money for old rope. (That’s a joke, by the way…sort of.)

Anyway, I’m off for a few days to indulge my own seasonal fetishes, so best wishes to you all for Christmas, and see you next week.

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